A Train of Thought

Why can’t the English teach their railways how to speak?

Engine number 6 on the Bure Valley RailwayRecently, Richard James took to Twitter to fulminate against the announcements that have trains arriving into stations instead of at them.  I heartily agree.  They do it deliberately, they do it consistently and it’s infuriating for the very basic reason that it is wrong.  However, that leads to two questions: why is it wrong and why do they say it?

I started off by wondering about the difference between ‘at’ and ‘into’.  It’s the difference between approaching a boundary and approaching a container.  You stop at the boundary, but you can pour something into the container.  If the train comes into the station, it’s entering a container (a vessel holding platforms, passengers, ticket offices and fat controllers).  In terms of the boundary, it arrives at the platform.  But what about ‘in’?  That also implies a container.  I live in Acacia Avenue; I live at number 47.  In that case, the street is a container of houses.  However, I can use ‘in’ and ‘at’ in similar ways – I can say that I arrive at Kings Cross Station, but I can also say that I arrive in London.  In the second case, I am using London as a single point on a map, the boundary of my arrival, but I am also acknowledging that it is really too big to be treated as a single point.  But now compare ‘in’ and ‘into’ with respect to the container that is London.  I can say “I am in London”; I can’t say “I am into London” (unless I’ve suddenly started talking like a hippy.  No, ignore that, it’s too big a digression.)  You have to say “I am going into London” because ‘into’ has the character of movement and it needs a verb phrase that agrees with that movement: when the train is coming into the station, it is still moving, but when the train arrives at the station, or arrives in London it reaches the boundary and it stops.

So why do train announcers use that horrible misconstruction?  On the one hand, they know the train is still moving, so perhaps they should reach for the phrase that signifies movement: “the train will be coming into Basingstoke.”  On the other hand, they know that the train will stop at the station: “the train will be arriving at Woking”.  If they refuse to see the station as a single point, and want to express it as a container, then “arriving in Clapham Junction” works fine.  I wonder if they are trying to keep the feeling of movement, but find that they generate too many sniggers when they talk about the train “coming into” a station.  Are they embarrassed by one connotation of such a simple and multi-faceted verb?  If so, there are plenty of other verbs and verb phrases that will fulfil the same function of movement into a container – how about ‘entering’?  The problem with that, as with all the phrases the contain movement, is that what they are trying to tell you is that when the train reaches that particular station, it is going to stop.  It’s that combination of the desire to express both movement and cessation of movement that is throwing their grammar off the rails.

3 thoughts on “A Train of Thought

  1. Similarly one can compare one thing ‘with’ another not compare one thing ‘to’ another surely. At least that’s how it used to work in the old days!

    1. Not quite! Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
      Both “compare with” and “compare to” are possible, but “with” should be used when the objects are already similar – you are looking at two objects side-by-side – whereas “compare to” implies that you are looking at one object with respect to a dissimilar object, so you are taking one object to the other in order to make the comparison.
      Thus, in my fruit bowl, I can compare an apple with an orange, but I can also compare an orange to the planet earth.
      That I understand the distinction is not to imply that I will use the correct form!

  2. My guess is that they’ve been given a new script by some middle manager who thinks that “into” sounds better than the alternatives!

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