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Both the usage of prepositions and articles are always the biggest headache for non-native English language learners—I think you’ll perhaps experience the same bewilderment when you first face complexity of the usage of prepositions called ‘te-ni-o-ha’ in Japanese language.

I was caught up with an primitive question, why it should be “earn a livelihood at one’s calling,” not “with/by one’s calling,” in the following sentence of the New Yorker’s (May 3rd) article titled “In Prague,” describing the hardship the thinking segment experienced under the Soviet-backed totalitarian Czech regime during 1970s.

Once they had been thrown out of the Writers’ Union, they were forbidden to publish or to teach or to travel or to drive a car or to earn a proper livelihood each at his or her own calling. For good measure, their children, the children of the thinking segment of the population, were forbidden to attend academic high schools.

As the text is from Philip Roth who received the Literary Service Award at the PEN Gala recently, it should be infallible.

But I as an English language novice tend to associate the preposition “at” with a speciffic working place rather than generic profession and job. Do we have to say “I earn my livelihood at my calling (writer’s/sales/guardsman’s job),” and no choice of other prepositions?

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1 Answer 1

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English prepositions are often just idiomatic and not necessarily meaningful. Sometimes it's possible to use two or three different prepositions in a particular phrase, e.g., I live near my parents, I live close to my parents, I live by my parents, I live next to my parents, all of which mean that I live not far from my parents' dwelling, but don't live in the same house or apartment as they do.

Google Ngrams shows that neither at my calling nor by my calling is as popular now (close to zero) as it was 150 years ago.

Roth's sentence is perfectly idiomatic. It would sound strange to me with by instead of at. But the word calling sounds a bit dated or out of order. Most people have a trade, profession, or job these days. Few have a calling, except for clerics.My father would have said "I'm an electrician by trade"; I would say "I'm an editor by profession"; Jerry Falwell would have said "I'm a minister of the Gospel by calling".

No writer's English is infallible: everybody makes mistakes, even the best of the best. But in this case, Roth's English is impeccable.

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And of course, these people could have made a living in another profession, with their skills, by their wits. If there is a rule for such prepositions, I have yet to discover it. –  TimLymington May 8 '13 at 21:10

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