Pay attention to the words you read, and a whole new life starts up in front of you. There are tiny differences in words we use every day and hardly notice. Language and culture are interlaced, and meanings shift through time and through use. I teach writing and grammar and I’m often asked to explain subtle differences in word use to people whose native language is not English.
Last week, a participant in one of my classes asked, “which is right, ‘My house burned down,’ or ‘My house burned up”? As native English speakers, we don’t notice those small differences.
I explained that when something “burns up” it is exhausted, like fuel. So, it would be fine to say, “I burned up all the papers with private information in them.” And, yes, it would also be correct to leave out the “up” and say, “I burned all the papers with private information in them.” But adding “up” indicates the entire pile is now ashes.
When something “burns down” it means that nothing is left of a structure. The complete phrase originally came from “burned down to the ground.”
There are other burning words. Overwork makes people “burn out,” but not “burn down” or “burn up.”
If someone deceives us, we are “burned,” without any preposition at all following it.
The same preposition problem shows up in “tie up,” and “tie down.” The former indicates a rope being used to secure hands and feet, but not to another object. The latter is a rope being used to tie a person (or an object) to a stationary object. So “He used the rope to tie up his victim,” but “He used a rope to tie down his victim to the bed.”
That wasn’t the end of the conversation. Because “don’t tie me down” isn’t a plea from Fifty Shades of Grey, (or it may be, but I don’t care), it also means to limit someone’s freedom. And “don’t tie me up” can also mean to load someone with excessive amounts of work, or to make them late for an appointment.
Words concerning time have great importance in our business culture because we can’t manufacture time, and it’s something no one has enough of.
English isn’t easy to learn because there are many subtle differences, but it makes being a writer a lot of fun.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.