For, In, By, and With

How little words can change things

I’ve been thinking a lot about little words recently. Words we often take for granted, but have a massive effect on the meaning of a statement. Consider these statements:

I do my work for my family.
I do my work by my family.
I do my work in my family.
I do my work with my family.

Each little word – for, by, in, and with – changes the vision of the relationship between me, my work, and my family. The kinds of interactions evoked by each scenario are quite different. All these statements can be true at the same time. However, the quality of relationship differs depending on our focus. Let’s think slowly about this.


If I do my work for my family, my family is positioned as the recipient of the fruits of my activity. Thinking about their joy as I succeed may fuel my work. Thinking about the provision I may give them may energize my work. Once the work is done, they share in the fruits of the work (money, power, status, etc.). However, they are not involved in the work itself. In the worst of situations, my family is an overbearing presence and takes all the fruit. In the best of circumstances, my family is an inspiring presence and share in the fruit. My family is not involved in my work, other than some kind of explicit or implicit oversight. I’m doing it FOR them.


I remember He-Man, the cartoon. When Prince Adam would transform, he would raise his sword and say, “By the power of Grayscull!” In our current example, my activity at work is facilitated by my family. I work by my family. This might require more specificity to really flush out. How do they facilitate it? Is it through encouragement? Or is it through financial support, influence, connections, or any number of other things. Here, my family is involved in my work, but only as a facilitator. They are still not close to the actual activity. They do what they can to facilitate the work, and I go and do the work. I’m doing it BY their facilitation.


I don’t hear this one used often today. There are two ways I think about parsing this one out. First, there is this usage, as in a letter: “I am writing to you in the name of His Royal Highness, the King of England.” What does it mean to write (or do something) in the name of someone else? It means that you are acting with their status, authority, power, and resources. Secondly, the language of IN is a statement of position. In our work/family example from above, I am positioned in the sphere of my family. This sphere includes aspects of personality, common action, historical and social context, in addition to status, power, and resources. By being positioned in this sphere, expectations about my own personality, actions, and relationship to historical and social context may show up. The aspects of my position are expressed as a result of being IN my family.


This final example has recently struck me. The language of WITH is quite common, but I think often overlooked. We go to the movies with friends. We work with colleagues. We live with family. But what can it really mean to do something with someone? For our example, when I work with my family, we are both present in the work; we have put all our hands to the work often at the same time; we are in constant communication about the work; and we both reap the rewards of the work. The language of WITH has a sense of interactivity in the midst of a particular pursuit. I’m not only consulting my family first, then going off and working alone. Nor am I only using their facilitation, or my position in my family for the work. All of that will likely happen here, and we will be interacting together as we both engage in the work.

When thinking about WITH, there is presence, equal involvement, consistent communication, and shared reward in whatever activity is engaged. This strikes me as the foundation of intimacy.

Make It Your Own

Here is a thought. Take the example from above and substitute your own words. Use this template:

I _______________ for ________________
I _______________ by _________________
I _______________ in _________________
I _______________ with _______________

If you’d like to share, post a version you are thinking about in the comments.