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Sometimes we stumble on ambiguous prepositions

A listener named Allen recently wrote to us about a confusing book review.

He was reading the Toledo Blade, when he saw a review of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel "Unsheltered." Under a picture of Kingsolver was the caption "Barbara Kingsolver, one of America's hardiest novelists, stumbled on the lost history of [Mary] Treat."

Allen says he immediately assumed the reviewer was not impressed with Kingsolver's book.

When he read that Kingsolver had "stumbled on" the lost history, Allen thought that the reviewer meant the author had lost her footing and failed at her attempt to write about said history. But that wasn't the case.

Allen says when he looked again, he realized what the reviewer actually meant was that Kingsolver had discovered Treat's history by chance. To make that point clear, Allen argues that the reviewer should have said that Kingsolver "stumbled on to" the lost history of Treat. 

This raises the question, did the reviewer use the wrong preposition?

One thing is certain -- the reviewer had a lot of prepositions to choose from. "On," "on to," "upon" and "across" are just a few that work with "stumble." What's tricky is that these can all be used to convey either a physical or metaphorical meaning.

"Stumble" started off meaning "to physically lose one's footing," but it gets a metaphorical meaning very early on. By the 16th century, "stumble" has already come to mean to come upon something unexpectedly.

Merriam Webster says "stumble across," "stumble on,” and "stumble upon" all mean exactly the same thing. When it comes to Allen's question, we do think that "stumble on" sounds ambiguous in that case. It could mean either someone came across something by chance or that they messed up.

If the reviewer wanted to be unambiguous, "stumble upon" or "stumble on to" seem like the ways to go. That's not to say "stumble on" is wrong, but it could trip someone up, so to speak.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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