A Means to a Question

means copyLast week I was writing a memo (as I am known to do when I am wearing my administrative hat), and I suddenly found myself contemplating the grammar of a phrase I had never before given a moment’s thought to. (And no, it did not involve a preposition stranded at the end of a sentence–I already know how I feel about that.) Here is the sentence that captured my attention:

I want to make sure that the [X] fund is on your radar as a means to support your research.

“A means to?” I thought. “Or a means of? Or a means for? And now that I think of it, is anyone going to complain about means as a singular noun?”

As many of us have experienced, once you start thinking this closely about any construction, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine what sounds colloquial or “right” anymore. I quickly reached that predicament, at which point I needed to see how other writers were handling the matter.

The Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage notes that the noun means, when followed by a preposition, is most often followed by of; less frequently it is followed by to, toward, or for.  The Corpus of Contemporary American English tells the same story for a means + preposition, although to is much more common than for, and toward is barely a blip. For my purposes, I was especially interested in the construction when it is followed by a verb (given that this is what I was doing in the memo), and here are the stats from COCA:

  • “a means of *ing”: 2,670 instances
  • “a means to [verb]”: 1,287 instances
  • “a means for *ing”: 307 instances
  • “a means toward(s) [verb]”: 9 instances

But a search for the means + preposition puts to on top (1,080 instances) followed by of (332) and for (103). The use of means plus any preposition appears more often in academic writing than any of the other registers (newspapers, magazines, fiction, spoken). This includes even the more colloquial expression a means to an end, although here magazines inch closer to academic prose.

Note that these numbers aren’t going to capture all the occurrences of a means + preposition followed by a verb because there may be intervening material. Consider this example that comes up as an instance of a means for (if we don’t restrict for a following verb), when in fact it is an example of a means to:

… a means for all Americans to begin to address their health needs …

It seems clear that in terms of frequency I was on solid enough ground with the phrasing in my memo (a means to support your research), even though using of would adhere to majority usage (a means of supporting your research). I ended up not changing the wording, partly because I was probably being stubborn but mostly because the more I considered the issue (which I was clearly overthinking at this point — I do know that), the more I sensed a slight semantic difference.

For me,  I think a means of [verbing] puts more focus on the means than the ends, and a means to [verb/verbing] puts more emphasis on the ends — that is, on the verb and the purposes of the means — at least some of the time. Consider these examples from COCA, the first two with of and the second two with to:

Experimenting with a microwave oven, Williams developed a means of curing tobacco …

Garden art is also a means of telegraphing the owner’s personality.

Its congressional overseers tended to view NASA first as a means to deliver pork back home and second as a means to deliver Americans into space.

… gaining extraordinary abilities wouldn’t immediately become a fun thing or a means to fighting injustice or crime.

In the memo, I wanted the focus to be on the end of supporting faculty members’ research as opposed to on this specific fund as a means. But certainly the construction with of can also put the focus on the following verb, as in this example from COCA:

… stopping the use of arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines and fees …

I realize, of course, that the readers of my memo probably spent not a moment thinking about my preposition choice in this sentence. And no one has yet complained about means as a singular noun. The memo was simply a means to an administrative end. But for me, it ended up being a means of surfacing a new grammatical question — and generating a blog post to boot.

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