Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Idioms: Preoccupied By vs. Preoccupied With

Nick writes:
Hi Snarky! Please tell me which is correct: I'm 'preoccupied by' video games or 'preoccupied with' video games? I hear it both ways.
This is a super example of an idiom that ends with a preposition. An idiom is an expression that requires using a certain string of words. Idioms can be particularly tricky when they include prepositions, because very often there is no grammatical reason why one preposition is better than another; it's simply that a particular combination of words became accepted and now it's a part of our language.

Quick rule:
  • There are many idioms that require a certain preposition. Examples include: able to, capable of, prohibited from, and preoccupied with.

Snarky Tip:
  • When you're unsure of which preposition to use in an idiom, it's often helpful to play with it. Change another word in the idiom from a verb to noun or vice versa. Put the sentence in a different tense. Or switch from the active to the passive voice or vice versa. Then, very often, the choice becomes clear.
I am preoccupied by nice clothes. >> Change 'preoccupy' to its noun form. I have a preoccupation by with nice clothes. That doesn't sound right! >> I am preoccupied with nice clothes.

  • I am preoccupied with video games.


  1. It seems to me that "preoccupied with" suggests that I am thinking of the subject, whereas "preoccupied by" suggests that the object is working on me.

  2. That distinction between "preoccupied with" and "preoccupied by" is how I interpret them, too. The bigger challenge, I think, is between "preoccupied with" and "preoccupied about". Among some recents examples I have had, both sound appropriate, even with the preceding Snarky Tip.

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  6. Preoccupied with is used when talking about things that occupy the mind.

    Preoccupied by, when preoccupy has the more literal meaning of occupying a place before someone else. One OED example with this meaning:
    There was a meeting of Licensed Victuallers in Trafalgar Square.., or rather attempted meeting, for the ground was pre-occupied by a belligerent assembly of Sons of the Phoenix.

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