protesting prepositions

For the second time in my life, I was on strike today.  I mean, really on strike as in having my pay docked for it, not like the one-woman strike I held in order to protest the rat infestation in my office at a former place of employ.  That one worked.  The rats relented.  This time, we're seeing some effect of staff and student protests and our counterproposals to the management's plan for over one hundred (BrE) redundancies/(AmE) layoffs, and I hope that will continue and that the strike draws attention to wider problems that, in my estimation, start with the government's classification of higher education as part of Business, Innovation and Skills (formerly Trade and Industry) rather that part of a department of education.  (There was such a department, but this (BrE) government / (AmE) administration turned it into a department for 'children, schools and families' and reclassified universities as part of the business world.) 

Happily, the only pay that I get for noticing AmE/BrE differences is my Google ad income, so I am free to notice them on a strike day.  That £4.50 per month will (N Amer & Irish colloquial, in this position) sure see me through the grim times.  <subliminal>Click! Click! Click! This child needs shoes!</subliminal>

And what did I notice today?  Well, this phrase in the BBC coverage of the strike, for one thing:
Hundreds of staff from the University of Sussex staged a strike in protest at job cuts, as students occupied a lecture theatre for an eighth day.
In protest at?   My first thought: 'Are the (AmE) copy-editors/(BrE) subeditors at the BBC on strike too?'  My second thought: 'What can a quick corpus search tell me about this preposition choice?'  A lot, as it turns out.

I used (as I usually do these days) Mark Davies' wonderful interface for the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and searched for in protest with six prepositions:  at, against, of, over, to, and about.  The last two only occurred at tiny rates in both corpora, so I haven't included them in the table below.  These are the results, expressed as percentages within each dialect:

   BrE        AmE
       at     703
       against     2434

So, there you have it.  In British English, one generally strikes in protest at something but in American, there is no clear preference for a particular preposition (unless I'm not thinking of it?).  Personally, I'd edit my own writing toward(s) in protest againstAs we were just discussing the other day, American English does seem to be more of-ridden than BrE.

But another interesting aspect of this story is that the American figures represent a lot less (or fewer, if you insist) data, in spite of the fact that COCA is four times bigger than BNC.  Taking this into account, BrE uses in protest+PREPOSITION more than seven times more often than AmE does.  So I thought:  'that must mean that AmE doesn't like to use protest as an abstract noun as much as BrE does, and so we tend to use the verb.'  But searching the verb protest shows that AmE doesn't use that more than BrE does either (though the difference is not as stark as for the prepositional phrases I searched--in the BrE corpus it occurs 2427 times per million words, and in AmE it's 1968 per million).  In all uses of the noun BrE uses it more (but only 1.38 times more, not the 7x more of the in protest phrases). 

So, do the British have more to protest?  Or do Americans prefer other ways of talking about protesting?  I think I know the answer as far as higher education is concerned...


  1. AmE, but not BrE, permits "protest" as a transitive verb -- e.g. "Lynne protested the cuts". That may explain the anomalies in your numerical data for prepositions

  2. As for "government" vs "administration": I wonder if that is simply related to parliamentary vs presidential systems. In Canada, we refer to [insert Prime Minister's name] government since the majority party has to form the government which will then be (theoretically) approved by the Queen or the Governor-General.

  3. "Protest" has always been one of those words that drives me a little nuts. You can protest a judge's decision, continuing to protest your own innocence. What? Whaaaaat?

    (I'm American, if that's significant.)

  4. AmE: my inclination would be to protest over or protest against.; "protest regarding" could work but sounds stuffy, even to me.

    WV: linverse - your universe. misspelled/

  5. you know A Very Peculiar Practice, the BBC show from the 1980's, right? Many times I've wished I could force university administrators to watch it.

  6. My American vote is for 'having other ways of talking about protesting'. While the phrase 'in protest against' doesn't sound wrong to me, I think we'd be much more likely to revise that BBC line as "Hundreds of staff from the University of Sussex staged a strike protesting (or to protest) job cuts, as students occupied a lecture hall for an eighth day.

  7. If protest fails, rock could work. I've only come across the verb-form when followed by "against", thus "rock against job-cuts", at least to mean protesting. One may, however, "rock the vote" which, far from meaning abstention, is actually about encouraging the young to go to the polls while risking council-tax registration. Rock against too much stuff and you could be accused of rocking the boat.

    Am I the only one who thinks the past of "strike" (to mean withdraw labour in protest) should be "striked". This is by analogy with the two past forms of "hang". Am I also the only one who, when hearing the currently popular BrE political phrase "hung parliament", can't help but forget the grammar and just think about the MPs all strung up by the Thames?

  8. @vp: good point -- transitive protest helps explain why we allow 'of' with the noun.

    @danielsz: yes, 'government/ administration' is about a parliamentary versus a presidential system, but I added it because that's what Americans usually say, not appreciating the difference!

    @biggerbox: if we were just using 'protesting' instead of 'protest' then my searches for the verb forms should have evened out the number of 'protests' in BrE and AmE--but there are still more BrE ones, so BrE still talking about protests more.

  9. So you were on strike over cuts, and in protest at cuts. Both phrases seem to describe states of being (rather than actions), followed by an explanation of the reason for being in that state.

    A Very Peculiar Practice is great (as are the underlying novels). The scavenging nuns come to mind for some reason.

  10. Hm - I think I'd only ever protest about something, or possibly over it. Protesting against also works but to me that sounds more like an animal rights sort of protest, not a strike sort or protest. (BrE)

  11. Thanks for another interesting discussion. Actually, if you just search COCA for protests + any preposition and then check the KWIC lines, you get a slightly different picture for AmE. The most common (in order) are:

    * protest against -- by far the most common; used for the thing you're not happy about

    * protest in - a place, or in a particular way (or, charmingly, "in the rain" -- now that sounds more British)

    * protest of -- first several examples are "in protest of", as noted in your post; but also the protest of + a particular group of people

    * protest from + someone

    * protest at + a place/rally/the Oscars, or interestingly, at + non-finite clause ("My horse began to jerk in protest at being ridden over rough, unfamiliar ground in near darkness.")

    And this is why I couldn't teach ESL without COCA any more ...

    (BrE native speaker teaching ESL in the US for 10 years)

  12. Though I think you searched something different than I did, Nigel--mine were always 'in protest *'. So I didn't get things like 'a protest at the Oscars' (though I would've got(ten) 'threw a shoe in protest at the president/the Oscars'--etc.).

  13. I to was thinking that it was more a difference of using "Protesting" instead of "Protest"
    Either that or simply not using a preposition after it. (To protest the health care bill, or Protesting the health care bill)

    But maybe it is something where we use other options, like strike or picket.

  14. Offtopic question: how do Americans and British pronounce the word "protest?" I'm American and I say "PROtest" for both the verb and noun, though I thought there was a trend in English for the noun forms of such Latinate words to have the stress on the first syllable, and for the verb forms to have it on the second (participating in a "CONtest", but "conTESTing" the results).

    I have heard it pronounced "proTEST" (in particular, a character in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, I think, pronounces it this way; I can't remember if the actor is British) but it sounds stuffy to me... For what it's worth, OED marks PROtest as only AmE.

  15. PROtest for the noun, proTEST for the verb. For me at any rate, and my feeling is that that's general in BrE.

  16. @A.N.M.

    Like Cameron, I (putting my BrE hat on) would say "proTEST" for the verb and "PROtest" for the noun. I've never heard "proTEST" for the noun in BrE.

    As you say, AmE has "PROtest" for both.

    John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (1st ed) agrees with all this, and also gives "PROtest" as an alternative for the verb in BrE. I've never heard that.

  17. Another transatlantic distinction in the word "protest" is in the word's meaning.

    Traditionally one can only protest against something or someone. But occasionally in AmE one hears the word used in a positive fashion -- e.g. "The crowd protested in favor of the President". This makes the word roughly synonymous with "demonstrate".

    I don't think this usage is yet fully accepted in AmE, but it seems increasingly common. A Google search for "protested in favor of" get almost a million hits.

  18. @vp "AmE, but not BrE, permits "protest" as a transitive verb"

    We do have 'protest one's innocence', but I think that's the only transitive usage natural in BrE.

  19. can proTEST one's innocence, but the crowd is PROtesting outside. I tie the stress to the meaning on the word.

  20. I'm always confused by the American transitive verb usage. In the sentence 'Lynne protested the cuts' I can't tell if Lynne was in favour or against cuts. In BrEng you can protest for or against something. It looks as if in USEng you can only protest against.

  21. Well you can protest for something in American English, but yes without specifying it's assumed you're protesting against. Though I think many Americans, myself included, would most likely say rally in that case.

  22. This discussion is not helped by the fact that "protest" seems to have a secondary meaning almost opposite to the main meaning, ie an affirmation rather than a dissent. I think this is more than just choice of preposition. My Oxford Reference Dictionary shows protest (intransitive verb; dissent) before protest (transitive verb; affirmation).

    "The lady doth protest too much" in Hamlet, means, arguably, affirm rather than dissent.

  23. I've always assumed 'protesting too much' was not that the lady was agreeing, but that she was so strongly against something, it was beginning to look suspicious (as with someone being strongly homophobic to cover up their own closeted feelings). But I have to admit I wasn't actually aware the phrase came from Hamlet (oh the shame) so haven't read it in context

  24. It's interesting that the form "at X" where X is a place, such as "at Cheltenham", used to be common in a lot of situations in British English but in the last few decades seems to have become slightly archaic. These days one would usually use "in" rather than "at".

    For example, people in the past would say something like "we have another house at Cheltenham", but now they would probably say "we have another house in Cheltenham".

    I don't know whether "in" has always been used in America in this context.

  25. I'm American, and use PROtest for the noun and proTEST for the verb. There are probably regional differences within the U.S.

  26. Esha, where are you from and where do you live?

  27. Andy JS (rather OT) -
    I've always thought it was "in" a city but "at" a smaller place. I picked up this idea from the piano exams I took as a child. The books of set pieces used to say, for instance "W.A. Mozart, born at Salzburg 1756, died in Vienna 1791" (if I've remembered the dates correctly!)

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  28. Twice today I have read about plaintiffs who intend to 'appeal the decision'.
    It's like 'protest' - surely one would
    a) lodge an appeal against
    b) (make an) appeal against/about.

    Are there other noun/verbs with this construction?

  29. Terry Collmann25 March, 2010 17:29

    Biochemist: AmE allows "appeal" to be a transitive verb the same way it allows "protest" to be a transitive verb. BrE, indeed, doesn't, and therefore BrE speakers do indeed have to appeal against something

  30. Yes, both examples were in UK publications - I would normally expect the intransitive construction. Just wondered why a noun is converted into a transitive verb. Even 'to appeal/ to protest' is an elision.

  31. If I heard there was 'a protest', particularly at Sussex, I envisage a crowd of hippies, with banners and picket signs, shouting at the indifferent face of the administration building, whilst looking nervously over there shoulders for a sneak attack by the riot police. So abstract noun as well as the other things.

    Incidentally, I'd argue that BrE has both sub-editors and copy-editors who do slightly different things and many magazines/papers will employ people to do both.

    Oh and that picture is bloody adorable. I'll click on German Language training and top UK MBAs just for that.

  32. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  33. Apologies for the double post- OpenID has a headache.

    Unreserved apologies for misspelling 'their'. I have no excuse for that.

  34. In my AmE, you protest against something unless it's specified as in favor of something, such as "they protested for the right to vote/equal rights/etc."

    You (or one), can/may rally for or against something.

    As for in or at, my usage is "in" except for when "in" makes no sense. For example, I could have a house in the country, or in a city, but the house would have to be "at the lake" never "in" it, unless there was a flood.


  35. I didn't twig that there was a protest thread so I posted on the by cash thread.

    • For me the one-word verb protest is always INTRANSITIVE — except in protest one's innocence.
    • The related TRANSITIVE item is the two-word verb protest at.

    1. Agreed, although I think Brits tend to use 'at' for an event and 'against' for a state of affairs. The BBC, which is doing its best to destroy 'Britishness,' is promoting the transitive use - people are frequently 'protesting cuts.'

    2. Maybe, but I personally use at for a sate of affairs.

      e.g. They're not celebrating, they're protesting.

      If the prepositional phrase is an afterthought, then against might not sound too bad.

      That said, I would not feel comfortable with against after the NOUN

      e.g. *in protest against

      People on the BBC who say protesting cuts can't possibly have any desire to destroy Britishness. They're just younger than us.

    3. I suppose I'm feeling a grammatical distinction:

      TRANSITIVE TWO-WORD VERB: protest at

      INTRANSITIVE VERB + PREPOSITION: protest against

      This seems to be a pretty loosely-based feeling. It may well change in future if I hear more and more people saying protest against.

  36. Sisyphus11 December, 2017 20:47
    Agreed, although I think Brits tend to use 'at' for an event and 'against' for a state of affairs. The BBC, which is doing its best to destroy 'Britishness,' is promoting the transitive use - people are frequently 'protesting cuts.'

    That's unfair - The BBC editorial style guide specifically tells journalists to use the word 'against'... the problem they have is when copy is picked up from say Reuters, where the 'against' word is left out, and lazy sub-editors don't know or bother to correct it. The Guardian and Independent newspaper style guides also promote the 'protest against' style.

  37. I (non-native English speaker, so neither BrE nor AmE) hadn't heard "protest at" before, but understood it as the direction in which your protest is going: Like you might throw stones at something, you protest at something. Of course "at" can also mean location, so you could do something "in protest at cuts at the University of Sussex"


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)