Grammar Guerrilla: “Speak Into” And “Love On”

The American Evangelical Abuse Of Prepositions Continues

Guerilla-GorillaTwo popular expressions entered the American colloquial lexicon about a decade ago. I first heard them both used by an evangelical from the American South. He wanted to “speak into” an issue and “love on” some people. It seems as if the first of these has escaped from the evangelical zoo and is now in the wild. The other remains in captivity. Both are barbarisms at which literate people justly recoil.

First, they are both excellent examples of the American love of intensifiers. Americans instinctively distrust standard English. It is not dynamic enough for us. It is not sufficiently affective. It lacks punch, or so we think. Thus, we add intensifiers to words to sprinkle some pizzazz and wow into our speech and writing. This comes of not appreciating the inherent richness of the the English language. It also reflects the state of the experiment we call public education.

Second, they illustrate the American habit of attempting to “punch up” words, as they used to say in the newsroom and they reflect the American habit of abusing prepositions. The verb to speak does not take the preposition into, unless one is Almighty God. One might say that he spoke into the nothingness (in nihilum) when he said, “Let there be.” Human beings, however, having been formed from the dust of the earth and animated by God, are not God and thus do not “speak into” anything. In some quarters it became fashionable to “speak to” things and we may suppose that “speak to” was not sufficiently energetic and thus became speak into. The verb to speak takes the prepositions aboutto, and for: “She spoke to the Senator about his support for a bill to privatize all schools and return their funds to parents. In that she spoke for millions.” One reason we Americans, and especially evangelicals, are so attracted to artificially affective expressions, is, sadly, what we have to say is less significant than the way we have chosen to say it.

All of this is especially true of the arresting expression to love on: “I just want to love on him a bit.” This is evangelical shorthand for, “I wish to take a moment to express my appreciation for his person and work.” All of that gets condensed to love on. This expression and speak into are instances of the American habit of creating shorthand expressions. We Americans are a busy, industrious lot. That is a virtue but if one has affection for the English language, should not one be a bit more careful in the use of the language? We are great builders—so much so that apparently “infrastructure” now encompasses everything—and great inventors of shorthand expressions. The greatest of these is ok. Some expression, e.g., love on, are so compact, awkward, vague and, in today’s cultural climate, potentially confusing, that they should not be used. Within the confines of the American evangelical sub-culture(s), love on is generally understood but outside those cultures it is liable to become cause for a visit to the Human Resources office and possibly additional classes on sexual harassment.

Well chosen shorthand expressions can add color but they are not all created equal. These two creatures, love on and speak into, should be sent to the shredder.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. The fondness for these intensifiers by evangelicals is especially conspicuous by the rapidly growing use of paraphrases in place of more accurate translations (ESV, NASB, etc.). This seems to particularly true with NLT. It is especially frustrating when someone like a study group leader refuses to use anything other than a paraphrase while most of the people in his class have an ESV or NIV. It’s very difficult to follow his reading! Maybe the NLT doesn’t contain some of these backwoods expressions such as “speak into” or “love on,” but it frequently adds words to scripture that simply are not in the original manuscripts and that can convey a skewed meaning of the text.

  2. “Love On” is the essence of youth group ministry. You’re messing with evangelical liturgical reform at this point. I remember I was literally told this was expected of youth ministers at church.

  3. On the subject of grammar, have you noticed the recent proclivity of the news media to use “less” when “fewer” should be used?

  4. Fight on, G.G. Perhaps you could take on whom and who, he and I, him and me, and their tribe. Moreover, perhaps you might wish to stuff “based off of” back into its can; “based on” may be old-fashioned, but it does the job well. And finally, what has happened to the good word “give?” I hear usage such as “was gifted an, e.g. Instapot, as a wedding gift;” “the company gifted him a watch upon his retirement;” “I gift you this Snickers bar.” Gifted grammarians such as you, G.G., must recoil. Do not think you fight alone.

  5. “On tomorrow” as in”I’m going to a meeting on tomorrow” is frequently used by some of my acquaintances. It pains me to hear it…

  6. In most cases I agree.

    “Speak clearly and distinctly into the microphone” might be a rare exception where the phrase is correct. It has equivalents with other words intended to convey verbal communication — “He shouted into the cave, ‘Are you in there?'” In that case, the distinction between “into” and “in” is important. The shouter is outside the cave. The person being shouted to is inside.

    As you pointed out, when referring to God’s creative activity, “He spoke it into being” may not be the most helpful use of words, but it is at least arguably a description of God’s activity that no human can do.

    As for “loving on” — it has also escaped the evangelical zoo, at least here in the South. I’ve heard people talk about “loving on” pizza or “loving on” a favorite pet. I dislike the phrase for most of the the same reasons you state.

    • Quite welcome, Dr. Clark.

      BTW, when you respond to Ed’s comment above that “On the subject of grammar, have you noticed the recent proclivity of the news media to use ‘less’ when ‘fewer’ should be used?” — you probably want to be aware that the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard set of rules on how reporters are supposed to write if they want their articles to be picked up and used by the Associated Press, and therefore the de facto stylebook for many newspapers, has gone through a number of changes in recent years.

      Many times when we see news media writing in a certain way, or when we see changes in the way things are written, the changes are due to changes in the AP Stylebook. That isn’t always the reason but it’s a factor.

      There was a day that it could be said the AP Stylebook was the de facto “bible” for writing standards in the print media. Changes happened, but they usually happened when the AP needed to establish a standard on how to use some new word or phrase, or how to write about some new subject. In other words, most changes were less of a change, and more in the category of additions or clarifications to long-established principles of how to write.

      In more recent years as the “woke” culture has become more vocal, we’ve seen the AP Stylebook politicized over such terms as “illegal immigrant.” The AP made a decision, large numbers of reporters didn’t like the decision, and soon the decision was flip-flopped to use words that at least some conservative readers felt reflected an ideological bias rather than a neutral word choice. By seeking to avoid offense, the AP managed to offend even more people and call attention to the politicization of the process of updating the stylebook.

      Some of that has been true for decades — witness the AP standards on phrases related to abortion, where both sides have vied to get their preferred terms used in print, such as “pro-life,” “anti-abortion,” “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion,” since it’s often true that “he who defines, wins.” However, we’re now seeing a much more wide-ranging debate over what used to be nonpolitical grammatical norms, first over subjects such as “inclusive language” and now broader political questions.

      The result is that some argue that the AP is no longer an arbiter of writing standards but rather seeking to advance an agenda through word choice. I think that’s an overstatement, but it is true that the “woke” community has a loud voice and the AP is listening when they say they’re offended, while they’re less likely to listen to objections from people on the more conservative side of the spectrum when we say we’re offended.

      Some of the changes, even those of a politicized nature, are at least arguably appropriate. In some cases I agree with the changes and think they’re long overdue. The rationale for capitalizing Hispanic and Asian but lowercasing the word “black” has a logical basis — adjectives based on proper nouns were to retain their capitalization but most adjectives were to be lowercased — but in that case, logic led to an outcome that offended significant numbers of readers who didn’t understand the reasoning behind the lowercased term and thought it was deliberate downgrading of an entire ethnic group. Personally, I believe the AP was right to make that change, and to say that terms for culturally identifiable ethnic groups should be capitalized regardless of whether they were based on being a proper noun or not.

      Language does change over time. The AP Stylebook isn’t intended to be an academic standard like MLA Handbook, but rather to reflect ordinary language used by average people, or at least those people who read news. As such, it will — and should — reflect changes in common usage of the language, even if those changes in usage are arguably bad changes.

      The problem is that the changes in the AP Stylebook have become so frequent, and enough of them are responding to the left-wing anger machine, that it’s no longer possible for journalism students to memorize a set of rules and observe them in their writing.

      The real harm caused by that problem is that changing the stylebook so frequently, and making changes in long-established principles of English usage on which there is not yet a widespread cultural consensus, means ordinary reporters can’t keep up with all the changes and end up writing whatever they want, however they want to write it, without much reference to the Stylebook or to any other standard at all.

      It is that lack of standardized use of the English language in newspaper work that the AP Stylebook was originally created to address. By changing so much and so rapidly, the AP Stylebook is losing its place as the arbiter of newswriting standards and we may end up back where we were in the 1800s with no set of commonly accepted standards for newswriting.

    • Thank you, Darrell. Your overview of the AP style book explains a lot about how language is used in the press nowadays. Some of these changes, though, seem to be coming from a different direction than just pressure from the “woke” culture and they’re just as bad. For example, how did the expression “civil unrest” come to replace “riot?” And from what source? “Riot” gives the reader a full impression of the looting and violence that takes place during such events; “civil unrest” might connote little more than people who are unhappy about something like election results. In other words, it toned down the meaning of a violent event way too much.

    • Thanks, George. I’d have to research the usage of the terms riot/civil unrest.

      It’s important that we not attribute motives in the absence of clear evidence, and in this case, I haven’t even checked the current AP Stylebook and prior versions to see what they say on use of these terms. I will do so, but I can’t do it tonight. I’ve just learned within the last hour that enough write-in votes have been certified from Tuesday’s election to overturn the result of a disputed school board election (a whole bunch of write-ins weren’t accepted on election night, but now have been accepted, and it’s more than the highest vote total of the candidate on the ballot who appeared to have won on election night) so I need to deal with that, and not this.

      I bring that example up to point out a fact that is sometimes lost in evaluating the work of reporters. We aren’t professors. We aren’t political philosophers. We don’t have enough time to spend lots of it thinking about the philosophy of words.

      While it’s true that we are “writing the first draft of history,” as some have described it, it’s not as if reporters, at least those working in the daily press (magazines and opinion journals are different) are spending lots of time thinking about ideological issues in our writing.

      Most of the time, we just don’t have time to deal with ideological questions and how our use of this word or that word might lend credence to or detract from a political position.

      What most reporters want to do is avoid offending people if there’s no reason to offend them on something of secondary importance. That makes the media vulnerable to people who come in and complain about X or Y or Z who may be much less representative of the community than others who stay silent and don’t comment. For example, if a respected community leader says a particular reporting practice or a particular choice of words is unintentionally racist, there’s a good chance that community leader will get listened to, and there’s at least some chance the community leader’s suggestions will get implemented in some form.

      There’s a lesson there for conservatives in non-political community leadership positions. I understand that politicians can and do score points by attacking liberal media bias, and I don’t disagree that it exists. At the national level, there’s little that an individual can do to address the issues.

      That’s not true at the local level, and the smaller the community, the greater the chance that an individual can have a voice and that local media will listen to that voice.

      If you see an article in your local newspaper that is significantly offensive to many of your church members and fellow evangelicals in other churches, or if you see a pattern of word choices or story selections or whatever that is offensive, and there’s no history of left-wing bias or animosity by the local paper toward evangelicals, pick up the phone and ask to schedule a meeting with the paper’s editor, or if it’s a larger paper, with the editor responsible for the section of the newspaper in which you believe a problem is happening. Better yet, if you know the reporter — this is ESPECIALLY true if the reporter has been around for a number of years and knows the community well — give the reporter a call, or speak with him or her at the next event that reporter is covering where you’re present.

      The issue of being a responsible community leader is important. If your title is “Republican County Committee Chairman,” you’re going to be perceived differently than if you own a local business and are a member of the board of your local chamber of commerce. One person will be perceived as being political; the other will be perceived as being a nonpartisan community leader. Size of the organization also counts. If you are the pastor of a church of a thousand members and the biggest evangelical church in town, you will be perceived differently than if you are an elder at a church of fifty people. That means for most Reformed churches, which tend to be smaller, getting together with a group of local pastors for a friendly meeting with the editor is probably more effective than an individual elder or pastor sending off a nastygram as a letter to the editor or a Facebook comment on an article.

      I’ve taken more time on this than I had planned. I really, really, really have to get back to real work now.

      But I hope this suggestion is helpful to people who read this website.

      Many complaints about media bias, particularly at the local level, have less to do with actual bias or animosity toward conservatives by the local reporters and more to do with an honest misunderstanding, either by the reporter or by the reader.

      Yes, reader misunderstandings DO happen. Last year, one of my readers kept insisting, without evidence, that I was a liberal who planned to vote for Joe Biden, until several of our local Democratic leaders got on the comments section and told her in no uncertain terms that I’m not a Democrat! The simple fact is that I haven’t voted for a Democrat above the county level in more than a decade (this is the rural South, and we do still have some conservative Democrats around here, and sometimes they are as conservative than the Republican running, or more so). I’m one of the most conservative people I know in media, and I’m open about my views, but some people just can’t get the idea out of their mind that all reporters are left-wingers.

      Liberal bias does exist. It can be a real problem.

      However, at least at the local level, much more often, the problem is that people on one side are expressing their concerns to the local media while conservatives don’t make the phone calls, don’t make the visits, and just complain and gripe without trying to convey their concerns to the people about whom they are complaining and griping.

  7. The last paragraph contains multiple grammatical errors. They distract from the otherwise excellent points made in the essay.

  8. I almost forgot, but was painfully reminded during a bad dream, about another preposition-abusing expression I used to hear all the time while growing up in a certain region of the Midwest, “started in.” “We were all ready to have a picnic when it ‘started in’ raining.” Ugh!

    • That one cuts close to the bone. It is frequently used on the plains and in the Southwest. I have typically heard, “it started in to rain.“ That one makes me a little homesick.

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