We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she settles a dispute between a sportswriter and his editor about whether the word "fraught" needs to take a preposition.

Kirk Arnott, a retired assistant managing editor of the Columbus Dispatch who keeps his hand sharp with part-time copyediting there, wrote Language Corner that a sportswriter turned in the following passage:

A few weeks ago, the Ohio State basketball team entered the roiling rapids of the Big Ten schedule. It was undefeated then, but the way ahead was fraught and, for this particular group, uncharted.

"I called him and asked what the way ahead was fraught with," Arnott said. "He said that the word could stand by itself. I said that there were various things it could be fraught with, and I wouldn't be able to guess unless he added a preposition and an object. I made it clear that the word needed help, so he grudgingly agreed to add the words 'with danger.'"

But the sportswriter, Arnott wrote, "recently presented me with a printout of a year-old Ben Zimmer column that said the use of fraught by itself—apparently to mean 'distressed, anxious, tense'—is on the upswing. I told him that a number of usages are on the upswing, but that doesn't necessarily make them positive developments."

Arnott concluded: "To me, using 'fraught' by itself leaves the reader to speculate."

But in the newspaper novel everyone seems to be reading, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, there's this loaded passage: "The final days of the newspaper were fraught." No "with," and few people in our business would need to speculate what the final days were "fraught" with.

"Fraught," says Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is an adjective meaning "filled, charged, or loaded (with)," as in "a life fraught with hardship." Note that WNW adds "with," implying that some preposition is needed. But then, here's WNW's second definition of "fraught": "emotional, tense, anxious, distressing, etc." There's no preposition there.

Dictionaries, of course, are not usage guides. That's why we have columns like "On Language," or in that case, had. In the column cited by Arnott's sportswriter, Zimmer wrote that "fraught" was originally a verb meaning "laden," but as an adjective used to always take a preposition. "Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning 'distressed, anxious, tense,' without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation," Zimmer wrote, one that has accelerated in the past few years, particularly in journalism.

And here's Bryan A. Garner, in his Modern American Usage: "This new use (without with) is now fairly common," though more in British English than American. He puts it at Stage 5 of his Language-Change Index, meaning it's "a linguistic fait accompli." He does differentiate, though, between "fraught with," which usually accompanies an ominous situation, and merely "fraught," meaning "distressed" or "distressing."

One could make the argument that there's not much difference between an ominous situation and one that is distressing, and for many people, "fraught" by itself still grates on the ear. But it's clear that this ship, fraught with fraught or without, has sailed.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 28th 2011, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Christine D. (Halifax Canada)
"Fraught" alone does indeed grate on my ears. As does "standalone" when written as a single word. I guess I'm old school.
Tuesday June 28th 2011, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
It was a dark and stormy night, one might even say fraught!
Tuesday June 28th 2011, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Tuesday June 28th 2011, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Graeme: The OED defines meta in the relevant sense as "designating or characterized by a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts." William Safire wrote about it here.

Giving a grant to the Awesome Foundation to give (awesome) grants sounds more recursive than meta to me, but they're closely related concepts.

[For a nice example of meta-ness/recursivity, see the latest xkcd comic strip, which I discuss here.]
Tuesday June 28th 2011, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Call me old-fashioned, call me what you please, but something is fraught with something. Yes, feeling fraught--undecided, confused, tense, pulled in various directions, unsure what to do--is a state of mind, but I think it needs some kind of explanation as to its particular content to be complete.
Tuesday June 28th 2011, 9:46 PM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY)
Reading "How to Read the Air", by Dinaw Mengestu

"Simple inquiries... were always fraught, and he had learned to avoid them."
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Fraught alone only makes any sense at all to me when placed before its noun, like fraught relationships, or fraught experiences, or fraught inquiries.

Otherwise, I prefer it with 'with'. But that's just me. LOL

The whole idea of a lonely 'fraught' leaves me somewhat 'fraught with anxiety'!
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 4:54 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
We are learning and these type of critical analysis overreaching our stock of words.

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