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The title is adapted from an article in THE WEEK, written by James Harbeck. Well worth reading if you ask me.

I don't particularly like prepositions. They are small, seemingly insignificant things that meddle with my writing. Living "abroad" so many years has resulted in me double questioning the validity of certain phrases and expressions.

The term, asserting, is one such example.

Which preposition fits best? The ones below all sound plausible, albeit the last one is probably an L2 (2nd language) interference. Nonetheless, which preposition should I choose with "asserting"?

  • By asserting that the red pill would reveal how deep the rabbit hole was, Morpheus implied there was only one reality.
  • In asserting that the red pill...
  • On asserting that the red pill...

Looking at Google Ngrams doesn't help much, although I suppose it's safe to eliminate "on asserting" but why?

Google NGram showing very low usage of 'on asserting' compared with 'in/by asserting' (which are similar in usage)

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    "In" seems most emphatic to me, expressing strongest equation or identity between Morpheus' assertion and the implication that there is only one reality. "By" functions similarly, but, to my ear, less strongly. "On" reads differently, and could be replaced by "upon", or "at the moment of". All personal opinion. – Dan Bron Sep 5 '14 at 13:31
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    In the face of critical remarks by others, I just want to say that I love prepositions, even though they treat me badly and don't really care about me. – Sven Yargs Sep 5 '14 at 16:50
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    Had to giggle when I came across your question, Mari-Lou. A German speaker I know calls prepositions "Tuefelworte" (devil words). They are the little demons of all languages - or is that "in" all languages? :-P – Howard Pautz Sep 5 '14 at 19:26
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    (At the risk of wandering, I'd add that it can be fascinating, albeit geeky, to study the etymology of specific prepositions across languages.) – Howard Pautz Sep 5 '14 at 19:33
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I don't like prepositions either. Or pronouns -- especially not mixed up with auxiliary verbs.

As @Edwin points out, a fronted on phrase implies a temporal frame for description of events.

  • On/Upon asserting that the red pill would reveal how deep the rabbit hole was,
    Morpheus was arrested, cautioned, and bound over to the authorities.

    (Upon makes the frame more obvious, and is thus more common in legal narrative)

@Mari-Lou asks why? There are several reasons, intersecting here.

First, since most preposition use is governed by the words that they modify, which precede them,
an initial prepositional phrase, with no preceding verb or noun, is likely to evoke a prototype.
That is, it's unlikely to be governed by anything later, so it must be a basic sense.

Second, since the object of the preposition is asserting, a gerund, we're dealing with an event.
And we're dealing with a clause describing the event, not just a prepositional phrase.
We need a frame to evaluate the clause.

Of the possible metaphor themes available, the one that functions as the prototype of on is

  • Time is Space

which treats a series of events as movement between successive points on a 2-dimensional plane.
E.g,

  • They arrested him on the seventh, and he was arraigned on the fourteenth.
  • She was born on the same day as me.
  • On leaving the theater, she was mobbed by fans and ex-husbands.

On means located in 2-dimensional space, as Fillmore points out in his Deixis Lectures.
The children can play on the lawn (lawn is 2-D), or in the yard (yard is 3-D).

So this particular metaphor theme, activated by the basic 2-D sense of initial on,
evokes a temporal narrative frame. But that doesn't fit the main clause, which is not temporal,
but logical. Morpheus implied there was only one reality is not a description of an event.

That's a description of a conclusion by the speaker, and it doesn't come after the asserting;
rather it is caused by the asserting, or -- if there's any difference -- is entailed by it.

With a main clause like that, the choice is, as suggested, between by and in.
By is straightforwardly causative/agentive.
In is 3-Dimensional, implying the two clauses are part of the same volume.

Just as event space is 2-D, logical/causation space is (at least) 3-Dimensional.
Typically, if proposition A implies proposition B, then B is contained in A.
Metaphorically, of course :-)

  • Is there any significant difference between in and by using the example sentence? Are they interchangeable? I can't quite grasp "In is 3-Dimensional, implying the two clauses are part of the same volume."What do you mean by "the same volume"? Sorry, if my question sounds stupid. – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '14 at 8:10
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    No, it's just that I was trying to sneak in an extra concept without paying the compositional import duty. I don't see any important meaning or grammar difference between in and by. In uses a logical metaphor of implication as containment (A ⊃ B 'A implies B; B is a result of A' means the truth set of B is contained in the truth set of A, or, in set theory terms, B ⊂ A 'B is a subset of A; A contains B') and by just names the agent. Both work fine in the example sentence. – John Lawler Sep 6 '14 at 15:56
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    This answer and your last comment helped me most. Thank you. – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '14 at 16:36
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'On asserting ...' here requires a main clause which does not describe a consequence or restatement, but merely an event happening (almost) simultaneously.

AHDEL sense 3 for on:

b. Used to indicate the particular occasion or circumstance: On entering the room, she saw him.

By introduces a consequence, and in an explanation, an apposition.

Here, by could be used to show that Morpheus was intending the implication, in to show the implication was inextricably linked with the assertion.

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    Importantly for the example in the question, on describes almost simultaneous actions, but the participle governed by on happens before the tensed clause, even if only momentarily. In your example, entering happens before seeing him. In Mari-Lou’s, it would be that Morfeus said “The red pill will reveal…”, and then implied stuff. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 5 '14 at 17:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet oh! So... all three prepositions are acceptable, I thought using on would be considered non-standard. I like your explanation, very insightful. And, you too Edwin. I haven't forgotten :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 5 '14 at 17:34
  • @Mari-Lou A I'm all in favour of those who remember any good stuff and forget all the bad (after it's been swept into the dustbin) (along with all those not-really-adverbs). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '14 at 22:43

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