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This is my first post ever on this valuable forum!

I'm at a loss, since I'm supposed correct students' exams, and I started doubting the grammar book's normatively exclusive use of the combination precondition + for, as in

"A halt to the fighting is a precondition for negotiations." (Dictionary.cambridge.org)

Obviously this seems to be the preferred option and "the most correct" (if there is such a thing), but a little google searching shows that two other prepositions are frequently used with the noun precondition, namely of and to, for example in:

"They insist on a guarantee as a precondition of the deal." (Merriam-Webster.com)

and

“But what I am saying is that for me, at least, feeling loved and wanted by somebody was a precondition to health.” (Dictionary.com, originally from The Daily Beast)

It seems that the online dictionaries or forums do not address the issue of the preposition, apart from one post here that deals with the word prerequisite, which was interesting, but not necessarily fully satisfactory.

So my question is: what is the difference in meaning when using different prepositions, if any?

Since precondition is such a versatile word, are there some contexts, in which one of the three prepositions (for, of, to) would be less than preferred? I'm especially interested in learning if the normative for would not be preferred in certain contexts.

Thank you already in advance for this answer and the countless answers that this forum has provided me in the past!

Regards, Hylje

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    It is a rough adumbration. I personally use "precondition to" with abstract nouns, "of" for concrete nouns and "for" for verb forms(usually finite). "precondition for negotiating." ""precondition to wealth/happiness." "precondition of the contract." But there will be variations. One could also say "precondition for health" but the "to" version is more affirming. – vickyace May 12 '16 at 18:35
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In cases where usage might be a bit uncertain, it's good to remember that language is a living thing and that the uncertainty may reflect the fact that usage has been changing.

A tool that I have come to love when faced with this sort of puzzle is Google's N-Gram. See how it's used in this particular case at:

You can see that up until about 1960, "of" was the preferred preposition, but in the following fifty years it's become pretty soundly beat out by "for."

If you change the date conditions you can see where this trend really took off:

Evidently either the stock market crash or perhaps the early stirrings of unrest in Germany somehow triggered a sudden rise in the use of "for." Why? I don't know... perhaps the explanation is as simple as a single head editor at the NY Times declaring that "for" was the "proper" preposition to use and the usage then began to build.

ADDENDUM: I discovered N-Grams while investigating the origin of the statements "Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray." or telling someone they "smell like an ashtray." I was curious as to what degree this was a "natural" observation that people had expressed for many years or if it was artificially created as part of a wider movement to create prejudice. N-Gram is limited to four words in a phrase for the most part so I created the following for the test:

(can't link as I'm still a bit disreputable { unreputable? :> } so I'll just note you should enter the two phrases "like licking an ashtray" and "smell like an ashtray" into the N-Gram. Remember: do NOT put quotes around the phrases -- just commas to separate them!)

As you can see, the concept is a relatively recent social construct, appearing only after 1975's "World Conference on Smoking and Health" decided to shift the focus of the stalled antismoking movement over to denormalizing smokers as a path toward what they eventually began calling "The Endgame." As George Orwell once noted: "As thought corrupts language, so can language corrupt thought." We see the game played out here in the US every four years as well as presidential candidates search for the perfect soundbite or image to portray their opposition as corrupt, evil, or simply silly or stupid.

Have fun with N-Gram! It's WONDERFULLY useful tool!

  • MJM
  • Hi, Michael J. McFadden, and thanks for your answer. The Ngram charts you've shared are quite interesting—and I formatted them to be visible in the answer so that more people can see what you're talking about. I would advise you, though to consider ending your answer before the addendum, since that material is less a response to the question than a commentary on how to use Ngrams. Anyway, thanks again for your answer. – Sven Yargs Sep 3 '16 at 4:48
  • Hi Sven! :) Thank you for the formatting help and also for the advice. After some thought though, I want to maintain the addendum there as NGram is a very valuable tool for understanding and exploring not just language, but social engineering and historical societal and political movements. I think readers in general will be inspired by the Addendum to use the tool in their own analyses in the future and thus is worth it. I also used the Addendum to clarify some usage formatting advice (e.g. not using quote marks and word limits) as new users are often confused by them. – Michael J. McFadden Sep 7 '16 at 6:49
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In every day use I change the preposition depending on how I use or refer to the object of the sentence (the exam), for example:

  • a precondition of - The text is a precondition of the exam (object context, talking about the exam)

  • a precondition for - The text is a precondition for taking the exam (action context, doing something to the exam)

  • a precondition to - The text needs to be read before hand as it is a precondition to examinations (time context, referring to an action in the future)

  • I can't tell if I like this answer because it needs some formatting. Experiment with the little edit symbols and see if you can pretty it up. – aparente001 Aug 31 '16 at 23:49
  • Yes, eww, late night insomniacal internet activities, fixed. – Bella Pines Jan 5 '17 at 21:37

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