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TWTS: A fraught topic that's fraught with questions

The word "fraught," when used alone, is fraught with questions. At least, for some speakers of English.

A couple of listeners have written to us recently, wanting to know if "fraught" can stand on its own. For example, "The situation is now fraught."

Both listeners were under the impression that the word "fraught" should be used with "with," as in, "I was fraught with emotion."

"Fraught" is a past participle of a verb that is either "fraught" or "freight." It meant "laden," which makes a lot of sense if you think about a freight train. 

At first, "fraught" was used to talk about ships, but it later expands to be used with people. For example, "He was fraught with pain." From there, it expands even further to describe attributes of something. You could say "the path was fraught with danger" or "the task was fraught with difficulty."

You could even say that something was fraught with blessings. If that sounds strange to you, it's probably because we're used to hearing "fraught" used in contexts that are generally negative. That helps explain why "fraught," when used on its own, has come to describe something that is distressing. 

Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, discovered that in the 19th century, we started to see compounds like "pain-fraught," "danger-fraught," and "emotion fraught." Zimmer's guess is that we went from "emotion fraught," to "emotionally fraught," to eventually just "fraught."

We actually have examples of "fraught" being used on its own that go back to the 1920s. Here's one from 1967: "Sleep didn't often withhold her favors from me, but if she did, it was always when the next day was going to be particularly fraught."

In "Modern American Usage," linguist Bryan Garner says that using "fraught" on its own is a change that has happened. We just need to accept that "fraught" can occur by itself or with "with," and both uses are fine. 

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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