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Why is there a difference between using "at" and "to"? Why can I not holler to someone or talk at someone? Further, why do we chat with someone? Why do the prepositions change with each verb?

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    Talk to, talk with, and talk at are all valid - as are talk for and talk over. The preposition changes the meaning of the verb. – John Feltz Nov 12 '16 at 2:50
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    It's like listen to but look at. Each verb that needs a preposition to achieve transitivity determines its own prepositions, arbitrarily. That is, there is no reason, that' just the way it is. Like spelling. Just as verbs determine what can be their subject and object and complement, they determine the prepositions that may be used with them. Arbitrarily. As I used to tell my grammar classes, verbs have more fun. – John Lawler Nov 12 '16 at 2:57
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    When you talk at someone they likely aren't listening. – Hot Licks Nov 12 '16 at 3:09
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    @JohnLawler: That's disingenuous, and unhelpful. Certainly there are many verbs that always take a particular preposition for which there is no discernible reason - and it's clearly impossible to come up with rules that cover all cases. But in many (most?) cases there are particular themes or ideas conveyed by prepositions, which influence the choice - so, for instance, it is possible for a speaker to coin a new phrase using a verb and preposition, and have the meaning understood immediately by other speakers. If the choice of preposition were 100% arbitrary, that would not be the case. – psmears Nov 12 '16 at 13:56
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    In some cases there are particular themes. Not in most. The majority of prepositions that are governed by predicates (instead of forming independent adverbial phrases like in the garden, where the semantics of the prepositions is more prominent) are arbitrary, and do not relate to the semantics of the preposition. Prepositions, like conjunctions, complementizers, determiners, and quantifiers, are part of the machinery and don't have much meaning by themselves. – John Lawler Nov 12 '16 at 14:51
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You can also holler to someone. In that case, the person you are hollering to is typically far away. You are trying to send a message across a great distance, so you must holler.

Hollering at someone is simply yelling at them, i.e., talking loudly.

What's more, you can talk at someone. In this case, the communication is typically one-sided: you are talking, whether or not the other person wants to hear you or is listening.

When at is used (with holler, yell, talk,..., even whisper) there is often a sense of aggression. The point is to be heard, typically loudly, and not necessarily to communicate or to be listened to.

(As @AndriyM noted in a comment, the same difference applies to, for example, throw to versus throw at.)

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    As I read your answer another example comes to mind: "read to" and "read at". In the 1955 Elia Kazan's "East of Eden", Kate says about Adam "Always so right himself. Knowing everything. Reading the Bible at me!" – Centaurus Nov 12 '16 at 22:36
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    @Centaurus: Yes. And there are probably other such examples. – Drew Nov 13 '16 at 1:26
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The choice between "to" and "at" (and a few others), when communicating vocally with another human, basically has to do with whether you have their attention and interest.

If you are carrying on a normal conversation, you are talking to the other person (and they are talking to you). (Note that you can also talk with them, implying two-way communications.)

When, however, a parent is telling a teenager something the teenager doesn't want to hear, and thus the teenager is tuning it out, the parent is talking at the teenager.

When yelling the same applies, except that one might yell at some stranger on the street to warn them that a car is coming. In this case they're not intentionally ignoring you, but you do not yet have their attention/interest.

On the other hand, if your friend Bill is standing on that hill over there, facing you and listening, and you are trying to tell him something, you may yell (or shout or holler) to him, simply because if you talk in a normal voice he won't be able to hear you.

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Each verb licenses specific prepositional phrases as complements. They are all different, and there is no logic behind it.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • But there really is nothing else to say or explain. Each verb has unique complements. – William Nov 13 '16 at 0:19

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