Saturday, October 4, 2014

Random thoughts on assist in or assist with?

A questioner at the language forum 'Pain in the English' asked, which is correct?
  • Assists attorney in drafting documentation.
  • Assists attorney with drafting documentation.
The few people that commented seemed to agree that the first was correct, and there was one suggestion that 'assist in' is followed by a verb, whereas 'assist with' is followed by a noun.
Both in and with are prepositions, so the only verb form that can follow either of them is a gerund, which is in fact a verbal noun, and there doesn't seem to be any grammatical reason that I can think of why a gerund can't follow 'assist with', nor any reason why a standard noun can't follow 'assist in'. But perhaps there's an idiomatic one.

Assist meaning give etc

It's true that when we assist someone by giving or using something to help them, then assist is always followed by with:
  • we should assist with money and not men
    British Parliament 1812
  • he was directed to place himself in a situation to be ready to assist with his boats
    British Parliament 1812
  • I will assist with all my power to support the interests'of the Batavian people
    The Annual Register, 1811
Most examples of this use I've found are quite old, although here is a modern example from the web:
  • businesses are called on to assist with specific expertise
But that's not what this post is about, which is when assist in / with means to take part in some process or action, as in the questioner's 'drafting documentation'.

Learner's dictionaries

Learner's dictionaries are rather better at giving this sort of information (and giving example sentences) than standard dictionaries, and appear to allow both, without specifying whether they should be followed by a gerund or noun. Most of the example sentences given in British dictionaries, however, seem to be with 'in', and are followed by nouns rather than gerunds:
  • "assist in/with something"
    Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

    "We are looking for people who would be willing to assist in the group's work."
  • "assist in/with"
    Macmillan's Dictionary

    Several top landscape designers assisted in the creation of the garden.
  • "assist (somebody) with/in something"
    Longman's

    You will be employed to assist in the development of new equipment.
  • "assist the police with/in their inquiries (UK)"
    Cambridge Dictionary
  • The American Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary gives these examples:

    " Another doctor assisted with the operation."
    "Federal agents are assisting with the investigation."
    "She assisted in making the decision."
    "The cream assists in the prevention of skin cancer."

Here, both examples with 'with' are followed by nouns, whereas the only gerund follows in, but we also have an example of a noun following in.

Usage Guides

I can find nothing about this in Fowler, either first or third editions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says:
When 'assist' clearly means 'help', 'in' and 'with' are usual. 'In' can be used before a noun or a gerund.
It's a shame they say nothing more about 'with'.

At Ngram

I wondered if there would be any difference if assist was followed an object, but this was even cleares - Ngram had no instances of assist + wild card + with, only with in (although the numbers here are pretty low):
The next graph shows that it's certainly true that the list of the top ten words after 'with' contains only noun phrases (they are mainly determiners - the being by far the most common) and no gerunds. But it's also true that the top ten list for 'in' includes five noun phrases as well as gerunds, and the two most common collocations with 'in' are both noun phrases. And that in all cases, 'in' is well ahead of 'with'.
And here are the most common collocations at Ngram with 'assist in the' and 'assist with the':
Does the word following in or with make any difference in deciding which to use?
  • The top four words in the in list also appear high in the with list:
    development, process, preparation, work
  • Six words appear only in the in list
    establishment, selection, function, maintenance, construction, solution
  • Six words appear only in the with list
    management, design, care, training, planning, implementation
I don't really think I can see any pattern there, except perhaps for the fact that there are two nouns derived from gerunds (although not themselves gerunds) in the with list. But see the section titled 'But sometimes there isn't a choice' a little furher down.

A couple of specific examples

One questioner at 'Pain in the English' asked which was correct with 'the project'. Here, for some reason, it's a bit closer:
I noticed that the expression 'called on to assist' cropped up quite a bit on the web, (Ngram has a five-word limit, and nearly all the examples of 'on to assist' at Google Books are of 'called on to assist'):
I thought that with the expression 'asked to assist' we might see more of a swing to 'with', as often this might be something like - 'you may be asked to assist with the children' or 'you may be asked to assist with lunch' (see below), but 'in' still has the edge here,as well.

The British National Corpus

Here are instances of various phrases with assist at the BNC:
  • assist in - 541
  • assist with - 167
  • assist in the - 238
  • assist with the - 67
While many of those with 'in' are followed by gerunds, a lot are also followed by standard nouns:
  • "the civil servants he appointed to assist in the work"
  • "a suggestion from the Ministry of Supply to assist in the production of railway bridges"
  • "About the only contribution information technology can make is to assist in the compilation of cricket statistics."
  • "Numerous tests are available to assist in the systematic assessment of a wide range of grammatical abilities"
Similarly, while the majority of instances of 'assist with' are followed by nouns, there are also quite a few followed by gerunds:
  • "Volunteers are welcome to assist with staffing of the City Varieties"
  • "one is merely allowed to assist with abseiling a small group down a short drop"
  • "Guides will assist with the serving of tea or coffee and biscuits"
  • "a variety of methods have been evolved to assist with coping with them."

Netspeak

Netspeak, a web-based 'corpus', found 30 million examples of 'assist' on the web:
  • assist in - 4.9 m, 16.3%
  • assist with - 2.0 m, 6.7%
  • assist in the - 1.5 m, 5.1%
  • assist with the - 454,000, 1.5%
So while assist in is 2.45 times more common than assist with, when we add the, the difference is even greater - 3.3 times as many. Which rather dicounts any idea that nouns follow assist with.

At Google Books

Sometimes both versions occur in the same book - in these examples on the same page:
  • This intern will assist with general administrative and clerical duties ... and assist in the closing of the sale.
    The Comprehensive Guide to Careers in Sports, Glenn M. Wong
  • Research with children with learning disabilities and the effectiveness of computer-assisted learning to assist in spelling is inconclusive ... Various software exists to assist with spelling
    Utilising Information Communication Technology to Assist the Education of Individuals with Down Syndrome, by Bob Black, Amanda Wood
  • To assist with development and implementation of a comprehensive and sustainable programme for disarmament ... and to otherwise assist in the training of civilian police.
    Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan: A Critical Reader, edited by Salah M. Hassan, Carina E. Ray
  • Assist in process and program effectiveness data and analysis for improvement ... Assist with designing of accommodation
    Response to Intervention and Continuous School Improvement, Victoria Bernhardt, Connie Hebert

Case study - developing and the development

The top expression in both the 'in' and 'with' lists at Ngram was 'the development', and 'developing' figures high in the Netspeak list.
These are the figures at Netspeak, based on a web corpus:
  • assist in developing - 89,000, 38.1%
  • assist with developing - 6,600, 2.8%
  • assist in the development - 166,000, 70.2%
  • assist with the development - 31,000, 13.3%
At the BNC it's:
  • assist in developing - 4
  • assist with developing - 0
  • assist with the development - 21
  • assist with the development - 2
And here's the picture at Ngram:
It doesn't seem to make much difference whether we use a gerund or a simple noun - in wins hands down.

But sometimes there isn't a choice

Looking more closely at examples from the internet made me realise that sometimes the preposition following assist is determined more by the word that follows it, rather than by assist itself. For example, in might be part of an adverbial expression - of time, place or manner, where with wouldn't be possible:
  • each brigade ... may be called on to assist in a neighbouring area
  • Eye health workers had come from all over Australia to assist in a week of intensive surgery
  • Volunteers are available to assist in a variety of ways
Equally there are times when only with will do:
  • You may be asked to assist with lunch
  • Scottish women asked to assist with police crackdown on human trafficking
  • ... the National Guard was called on to assist with rescue efforts.
Apart from particular words like lunch, it seems to me that with is especially used when the assistance is not part of the subject's normal duties.

Comparison with help

help + wildcard + in / with
help in / with + wildcard

Conclusions

  • Both 'in' and 'with' are usually possible.
  • When followed by a gerund, 'in' is by far the most common.
  • But the difference isn't much less when followed by a simple noun - 'in' is still the clear favourite.
  • The use of 'with' seems to have been increasing since around the middle of the twentieth century.
  • There are some occasions when only 'in' is possible, and others when only 'with' is possible.
  • My own feeling is that the more the process is part of the subject's normal activities, the more we are likely to use 'in', and that 'with' is possibly favoured when the subject is not 'part of the team', and when they are, in effect, helping other people, more than fully participating in something as part of their normal activities.

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