Tools

A lack of prepositions: Understanding “lack” vs. “a lack of”

Nigel Caplan

In this article, Nigel Caplan explains the difference between lack and a lack of.

A minor but persistent error in many English learners’ writing is the confusion between the use of the verb and noun lack. For example:

  • CORRECT: Many countries lack
  • CORRECT: Many countries face a lack of
  • INCORRECT: Many countries are lack of
  • INCORRECT: Many countries lack of

 

When lack is a verb…

It does not need an auxiliary verb (are lack), and since it is transitive, it is not followed by a preposition (lack of). However, lack as a noun follows a verb (has, faces, experiences, etc.) and is usually followed by a prepositional phrase (of …).

There are several pairs of common words which follow similar patterns:

Verb (transitive) Verb + Noun + Prepositional Phrase
Some rural areas lack high-speed internet. There is a lack of high-speed internet in rural areas.
Students can access the library databases. Students have access to the library databases.
Advertising influences young people. Advertising has an influence on young people.
Great art affects its viewers.* Great art has an effect on its viewers.*

* Note the spelling change: affect is a verb that means to have an effect on something or someone.

One way to help learners edit their writing for this potential problem is to have them circle the words they are using as verbs. They can then check a dictionary see whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. For example. In the Cambridge Online Dictionary entry, there is a [T] after the verb lack to indicate that it is transitive, so the direct object cannot take a preposition. Circling verbs may also show students if they have accidentally written two verbs (such as are lack). As a teacher, you will be able to quickly observe whether your students recognize that words like lack can function as different parts of speech (noun or verb).

Lack is unusual in another way

Although it is a transitive verb, it has no passive form. Instead, a present progressive form (is lacking) can be used:

  • CORRECT: Many communities lack a local newspaper.
  • INCORRECT: A local newspaper is lacked in many communities.
  • CORRECT: A local newspaper is lacking in many communities.

 

The other verbs in the table above do have passive forms:

  • Library databases can be accessed from anywhere.
  • Young people are influenced by advertising.
  • Viewers are affected by great art.

 

This downloadable worksheet will give your students practice using lack and lack of.

 

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