Q&A: There’s no need to obsess about it…

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, we share an obsession of ours…

Q: Hi Australian Writers’ Centre, I’m obsessed with the little plastic ties on bread packets, while my friend is obsessed by those teeny tiny forks that you stick into corn cobs. Which of us is right?
A: Well, neither of you seem quite right, but I think you’re after the grammatical side of things, yes?

Q: Indeed. Am I correct saying “obsessed with” or is my corn-lovin’ pal correct with “obsessed by”?
A: Both of these adjective forms are found in English usage. And there are many cases of them being used interchangeably without too many eyelids being batted. It’s not an American/English thing for a change, it’s often a context and preference thing. However…

Q: Yes?
A: The verb ‘obsessed’ leads a double life. When it’s not off gallivanting about as the simple past tense and past participle of ‘obsess’, it’s lurking in the shadows as “being influenced by evil spirits” (kind of a lite version of ‘possessed’). The latter is less common these days, but could be the reason we’ve got two options.

Q: So would I be right in this case?
A: In terms of being “really into something”, we think “obsessed with” is the way to go. Because you are the active participant doing the obsessing. As for “obsessed by”, you play more of a passive role in things – much like being possessed by or entranced by something – it’s the something else that’s doing the obsessing. This CAN makes sense and sound right, especially in spoken English, but when writing it, go with “with”.

Q: I knew I was right!
A: Yep, you’re the best thing since sliced bread (in a packet, tied up).

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