Fraught Fest

Can something be ‘fraught’ without ‘with’?

Kirk Arnott, a retired assistant managing editor of the Columbus Dispatch who keeps his hand sharp with part-time copyediting there, wrote Language Corner that a sportswriter turned in the following passage:

A few weeks ago, the Ohio State basketball team entered the roiling rapids of the Big Ten schedule. It was undefeated then, but the way ahead was fraught and, for this particular group, uncharted.

“I called him and asked what the way ahead was fraught with,” Arnott said. “He said that the word could stand by itself. I said that there were various things it could be fraught with, and I wouldn’t be able to guess unless he added a preposition and an object. I made it clear that the word needed help, so he grudgingly agreed to add the words ‘with danger.’”

But the sportswriter, Arnott wrote, “recently presented me with a printout of a year-old Ben Zimmer column that said the use of fraught by itself—apparently to mean ‘distressed, anxious, tense’—is on the upswing. I told him that a number of usages are on the upswing, but that doesn’t necessarily make them positive developments.”

Arnott concluded: “To me, using ‘fraught’ by itself leaves the reader to speculate.”

But in the newspaper novel everyone seems to be reading, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, there’s this loaded passage: “The final days of the newspaper were fraught.” No “with,” and few people in our business would need to speculate what the final days were “fraught” with.

“Fraught,” says Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is an adjective meaning “filled, charged, or loaded (with),” as in “a life fraught with hardship.” Note that WNW adds “with,” implying that some preposition is needed. But then, here’s WNW’s second definition of “fraught”: “emotional, tense, anxious, distressing, etc.” There’s no preposition there.

Dictionaries, of course, are not usage guides. That’s why we have columns like “On Language,” or in that case, had. In the column cited by Arnott’s sportswriter, Zimmer wrote that “fraught” was originally a verb meaning “laden,” but as an adjective used to always take a preposition. “Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning ‘distressed, anxious, tense,’ without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation,” Zimmer wrote, one that has accelerated in the past few years, particularly in journalism.

And here’s Bryan A. Garner, in his Modern American Usage: “This new use (without with) is now fairly common,” though more in British English than American. He puts it at Stage 5 of his Language-Change Index, meaning it’s “a linguistic fait accompli.” He does differentiate, though, between “fraught with,” which usually accompanies an ominous situation, and merely “fraught,” meaning “distressed” or “distressing.”

One could make the argument that there’s not much difference between an ominous situation and one that is distressing, and for many people, “fraught” by itself still grates on the ear. But it’s clear that this ship, fraught with fraught or without, has sailed.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,