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Prepositional usage with disagree

Charles Skeete
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 4, 2001, page 23)

The verb disagree is often followed by a number of prepositions, e.g. about, on, over and with. Are they interchangeable? When, why and in what contexts should they be used?

In trying to provide answers to these questions, we recall the following two observations: 1) disagree is an intransitive verb, which means that it is a verb that stands alone and does not require an object; and 2) about, on and over, while often interchangeable with one another, are not interchangeable with with.

In contexts where disagree is used in one of its two primary senses, i.e. the opposite of agree, fail to agree, often no preposition is required or stated. Here are three examples:

  1. Even the happiest of siblings often disagree.
  2. Although they frequently disagree, the two political foes decided to join forces.
  3. After much debate and soul-searching, the two theologians agreed to disagree.

In these three examples, it is understood that the "disagreement" is between the subjects mentioned and, therefore, that these subjects disagree "with one another" or, as in examples 2 and 3, "with each other." "With one another" and "with each other" are prepositional objects that grammarians call "the natural complement of an intransitive verb."

When the "natural complement" is stated, it provides additional information regarding the parties involved in the disagreement, or the item or topic of the disagreement. In such contexts, with is the preposition always used. Here are four examples:

  1. Even the happiest of siblings often disagree with their parents.
  2. Although they frequently disagreed with each other’s political views, the two political foes decided to join forces.
  3. After much debate and soul-searching, the two theologians agreed to disagree with the Church’s views on celibacy for clergy.
  4. The school board disagreed with the principal’s proposal to ban homework for elementary school students.

In other contexts we see examples where disagree does not have a stated prepositional object and is followed immediately by a prepositional phrase introduced by about, on or over. What does this mean? Let us examine the following sentences:

  1. The brothers disagreed about the merits and demerits of the plan.
  2. Experts disagree about the rate at which the rainforests are disappearing.
  3. Our researchers disagree about the age, design and use of the Great Pyramid.
  4. The government’s experts disagreed on the progress of the Y2K survival programs.
  5. Doctors disagree on the safety of liposuction.
  6. The rebels disagree on who controls the Sierra Leone capital.
  7. Scholars disagree over the theory of evolution.
  8. Husbands and wives disagree over proper disciplinary measures and methods of raising their children.
  9. Members of Parliament disagree over how to run human resources programs.
  10. The U.S. and E.U. disagree over the proposals to lift the ban.

In each of these sentences, the prepositional object of disagree is understood and relates to the parties involved in the "disagreement"; in other words, the subjects of each of the verbs in each of these sentences disagree "with one another" or "with each other" (example 10). In addition, if we were to add another name to the parties involved in the "disagreement," i.e. modify the prepositional object, the preposition with would still be used and the prepositions about, on and over would still be correct in each of their respective sentences. Here are three examples that modify three of the aforementioned sentences:

  1. The brothers disagreed with their sisters about the merits and demerits of the plan.
  2. The government’s experts disagreed with the media on the progress of the Y2K survival programs.
  3. The U.S. and E.U. disagree with the United Nations over the proposals to lift the ban.

These examples clearly illustrate that the "natural complement" of disagree always refers to the person, item or topic of the disagreement, while about, on and over are merely expressions introducing prepositional phrases that provide more information about the prepositional object of disagree. The prepositions about, on and over are nearly always interchangeable in these contexts.

In addition, when disagree is used with its other senses of to be inconsistent or unlike, to fail to correspond; to have an adverse effect; to be harmful, with is still the only correct preposition used to introduce the prepositional object. Here are a few examples:

  1. The students’ in-depth research findings disagreed with the main theme of their professor’s publication.
  2. Jean-Pierre’s recommendations disagreed with every phase of our terminology research methodology.
  3. Peanuts disagree with a significant number of children under the age of 15.

In conclusion, disagree is an intransitive verb which stands alone or is followed by the preposition with which identifies the parties involved in the disagreement or the item or topic of the disagreement. All other prepositions such as about, on and over are expressions introducing prepositional phrases that provide more information about the prepositional object, which is the only natural complement of the intransitive verb disagree.

N.B. Other prepositions may be found immediately following disagree but they are simply expressions used to introduce an adverbial phrase. An example is in:

  1. The scientists’ theories disagree in their basic premises about environmental diseases.
  2. Both the French and English data disagreed in every aspect of concept analysis.