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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

partner with

(1990’s | businese | “work with,” “merge,” “form a partnership”)

My hasty generalization: The verb “to partner” has generally shifted from referring to something individuals do to something corporations do. In doing so, it has taken on a customary preposition, “with,” that was not nearly so common before.

As of the late 1970’s, this verb was alive and well but not particularly common. It was used most commonly to mean “act as a partner,” to refer to two people working together, like dancers, tennis players, bridge partners, even a jockey and his mount. It was more often used transitively (“dancer x partners dancer y well”), I think, and when it was used with a preposition, it was as likely to be “by,” standard for ordinary passive constructions, as “with.” Dance critics and sportswriters used it frequently; business writers much more rarely, although I did find a few examples of the corporate use of “partner” in the seventies and even earlier. In this sense, the verb mostly serves as a way to avoid the cumbersome “act as a partner” and speed up the sentence a little.

By the mid-1990’s, “partner” came to be used much more to talk about two corporations, and this sense is much more common today — not that the earlier meaning has disappeared, but it might start to sound archaic in another twenty years. And its use has spread, probably inevitably, throughout political and economic circles. Not just two private businesses merging, but a government agency working with a private company, say, or several small non-profit organizations pooling resources. A computer retailer might partner with the local school board, or local arts organizations might partner (or “partner with each other” or even, redundantly, “partner together”) in order to put on a larger exhibition or attract grant funding. The intransitive use in the last sentence seems to occur relatively infrequently compared to the now nearly ubiquitous “partner with.” In this sense, the verb mostly serves as a way to avoid the cumbersome “form a (business) partnership” and speed up the sentence a little.

Sometimes “partner with” means “pair with” or “match with,” as in “the steak was partnered with fried yuca” — finding two foods or plants or fractious students that work together well. “De-partner” comes up occasionally when you’re talking about a brokerage firm, for example: to remove someone from the position of partner. You’re not fired, but you’re not really in the inner circle any more, either, and your earning power goes down if the remaining partners find out. I haven’t heard it yet, but I expect to any day: “partner,” with or without “with,” used to mean “form a legal domestic partnership.” As in “Maria finally partnered Joe down at City Hall yesterday.” This sort of individual use is in eclipse now but may come back.


(2000’s | journalese? | “ago,” “before,” “earlier,” “previously”)

Little Bo Peep has lost her preposition . . . In the good old days, you never ended a sentence with “prior.” It was always followed by a preposition, except when it was an adjective (“previous”), in which case it always came before the noun (“prior restraint,” “prior discoveries”). But its use as an adverb following a noun (“three days prior”) is worming its way into standard American English. I didn’t start to see it until after 2000, and I’ve found very few cites before that turn of the calendar.

The sense really hasn’t changed, and the “to” is still there, implicitly — before you know what “three days prior” means, you have to know the speaker’s date of reference. When the implicit date is today, then “prior” simply replaces “ago.” When it was last week, the word replaces “earlier,” “before,” or “previously.”

As far as I can tell, this usage first clustered in newspaper and media directories, as in “editorial deadline ten days prior,” where the implicit date was understood to be press date or broadcast date. It made sense where you have many entries all dealing with the same thing, to save space by leaving out what was clearly understood. There doesn’t seem to have been a specific path into general use; journalists have an obvious advantage when it comes to spreading new expressions, so maybe it’s unnecessary to look for a progression through different professional jargons. I did find an interesting citation in the Orange County Register, December 31, 2002: “The voter-registration deadline, which long had ended 29 days before an election, moved to just 15 days prior.” It’s certainly not “ago” or “previously”; it’s similar to “earlier” or “before” (or “beforehand”), but earlier doesn’t sound quite right and “before” is repetitious. So there are moments when this word actually by God works.

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