Previously, I talked about how editing papers by non-mother tongue speakers can sometimes severely test my native speaker intuitions about English. I mentioned slightly atypical word choice as one recurrent issue, and odd collocation as another.
- There is considerable variation in global English between abreast of /with. With seems to be commoner in countries where English, while an official or second language, is less used than elsewhere.
- Analogy and history suggest that it is impossible to say that one version is “correct ” in all circumstances.
- Use of one or the other form seems to depend not only on where in the English-speaking world you are, but also on the register. In some academic writing, “with” is standard.
I came across abreast with in an academic paper and it caused me some head-scratching.
The complete phrase was: “He distinguished five dimensions related to Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: civic virtue (keeping abreast with important organizational affairs)…”
“(Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed),” thought I to myself, “abreast of is canonical and abreast with a mistake”. On the other hand, I did not amend it and decided to check.
Analogy is such a powerful factor in language: many synonyms of abreast in this meaning take with as their preposition. The Oxford Online Dictionary offers ten synonyms, of which eight take with, e.g. up to date with.
It seemed clear to me that non-mother tongue speakers would find it logical to use with, as the standard linking preposition. Moreover, they would probably have come across some of those synonyms rather more often than the less frequent abreast of, with its seemingly anomalous preposition.
The usage guides I normally use were of no help, and there was little discussion online, so I consulted corpora.
The first was the Oxford English Corpus.
In the February 2014 release, abreast of appeared only seven times, while abreast with came up well over 100 times, e.g.
She said because technology keeps changing, her company would not want to remain behind but to keep updating their network so as to keep abreast with the latest communication technology.
Reviewing those examples raised in me the suspicion that the figure was high because of regional variation combined with journalistic preference. First, abreast with occurs with far greater than expected frequency in South African, Indian and Caribbean sources; second, in each of those segments its use is confined to a handful of newspapers, e.g. The Times of Zambia, The Hindu, etc.
But my surprise was even greater when I checked in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, journals, of June 2015: stay / keep abreast with = 48; abreast of = 2.
Does the choice of preposition depend on register and domain then, as well as region?
It would seem so.
It also depends on where in the English-speaking world you are from
I checked in four other corpora: The Corpus of Historical American, The Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW Corpus, and the Corpus of Global Web-based English. To simplify matters, I searched for the lemmas of KEEP and STAY only. The figures are these:
|CORPUS (size)||dates||keep abreast of||keep abreast with||stay abreast of||stay abreast with|
|COHA (400 mill.)||1810s–2000s||202 (93.5%)||14 (6.5%)||15 (100%)||0|
|COCA (520 mill.)||1990–2015||195 (97.5%)||5 (2.5%)||86 (96.6%)||3 (3.4%)|
|NOW (2.8 bill.) 20 countries||2010–yesterday||1252 (83.3%)||251 (16.7%)||488 (92.6%)||39 (7.4%)|
|GloWbE (1.9 bill.) 20 countries||2012–2013||969 (83.6%)||188 (16.4%)||333 (92%)||29 (8%)|
What strikes me is the difference between keep abreast of in data from a single country (COHA, COCA) and from 20 countries.
Moreover, doing a less focused search for abreast + 1 – which brings in verb variants such as REMAIN, BE, MAINTAIN, etc. – reveals discrepancies between different varieties of English.
For example, while the percentage for of in US English is 93.7%, in Indian English it is 70.2%, in Malaysian English 58.4%, and in Ghanaian English a mere 33.8%.
(In descending order within each grouping)
100–90%: Canada, US, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, Jamaica, GB
80–90%: NZ, Zambia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka
70–80%: Tanzania, Pakistan, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, India
Of the eight dictionaries I consulted (both native-speaker and learners dictionaries), only the Oxford Advanced Learners (OALD) had an example showing with:”It’s important to keep abreast with the latest legislation.” In addition, the Collins English Dictionary, while containing no examples at all, did mark the relevant meaning as (followed by of or with). Seven dictionaries had examples also for the literal meaning – to be alongside or level with someone or something – all exclusively with of.
The long view: historically speaking
A search in the revised (2009) OED, however, reveals several interesting things. For the physical meaning:
- it gives the phrase as abreast of (also with);
- the first citation for that meaning (1635) has with;
- of 11 citations (dated 1635–1994), four have with.
The metaphorical meaning is category b) of the phrase as laid out above, with the additional note “Freq[uently]. to keep abreast of:
- of 11 citations for that meaning (spanning 1644–2005), seven are with;
- they range from 1644 through the 19th and 20th centuries
(There are choice examples at the end, for the really keen.)
Conclusion? And the moral is…?
For this editor, the moral of the story is: don’t jump to conclusions.
- Given that the authors of the article which was my starting point were from the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait, and that the medium was an academic article, leaving with seems the correct decision to me.
- Second, it shows that even something as apparently simple as a compound preposition admits of perfectly legitimate variation. It may not be part of my (or your) idiolect, but that doesn’t matter.
- Third, as is not unusual, the alternatives are not a “modern invention”, but instead have a long history.
- To insist that the version one prefers is the only correct one, in the face of global variation, is to bury one’s head in the sand and be a linguistic martinet.
- And last of all, at the risk of stating the obvious, any editor working on international material needs to be aware that there are variations other than the oft-raised British vs US English.
The three next men behind him, move forwards to the left of each other; untill they ranke even a brest with their file-leader.
W. Barriffe, Military Discipline xxxvii. 104, 1635.
Facing about, he march’d up abreast with her to the sopha.
Sterne, Tristram Shandy IX. xxv. 101, 1767.
He is abreast of the white man, who has paused.
W. Faulkner, As I lay Dying lii. 155, 1930.
Though some conceive him to be as much beneath a Poet, as above a Rhimer, in my opinion his Verses may go abreast with any of that age.
T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Shrop. 9, a1661.
The compromises by which they endeavoured to keep themselves abreast of the current of the day.
Scott Redgauntlet (new ed.) I. p. xxi, 1832.
I had written my diary so far, and simply read it off to them as the best means of letting them get abreast of my own information.
B. Stoker Dracula xx. 274, 1897.
Like so many Italian composers, Verdi regarded himself primarily as a craftsman whose duty it was to keep himself abreast with the times.
Musical Times 71 559/1, 1930.