3

I've looked into COCA for citations of "problem asking for" and "problem with asking for", and I found references to both. But I have a feeling that one is more common that the other or one is more informal than the other, so which is which?

Example: I don't have a problem [with] asking for help from specific people.

  • Let me guess (I didn't look it up yet), the one without "with" is more likely in spoken corpus (and thus implies the informality). Am I correct? :-) – Damkerng T. Jan 14 '14 at 17:21
  • I got one result for each, and both are from the same source, a magazine. So I can't tell. What I feel is that the one with "with" may not be formal (I'm confused anyway!). – learner Jan 14 '14 at 17:29
  • I see now why I have to listen and read (and maybe write) a lot with "scanning English" in mind. – learner Jan 14 '14 at 17:36
8

The two expressions overlap, but are not always interchangeable.

  1. If you find it difficult to perform some action expressed as a verb you should ordinarily use the -ing form, thus:

    I have a problem calculating derivatives.
    I have a problem asking for help.

  2. If you find it difficult to perform in some matter expressed as a noun—an academic subject, for instance, or a category of action—use the preposition phrase headed by with:

    I have a problem with calculus.
    I have a problem with relationships at work.

  3. However, to have a problem with X can also have a different meaning: to have an objection to X. The idea expressed is not that X is difficult, but that it would create a difficulty—perhaps a practical difficulty, perhaps a moral or philosophical difficulty:

    I have a problem with asking Herbert for help. Whenever you ask him for help on a project he tries to take it over and make it part of his empire building.

The lines between these can be fuzzy; but in general you should avoid using with with an -ing form unless you are speaking of your objection (3) rather than your incompetence (1).

  • A couple of minutes with NGrams suggests to me that the with [gerund] form is a relative newcomer. Which may or may not be related to the increased use of have a problem with X = object to X (where "with" can't be omitted). Personally, I would hardly ever include "with" except when the problem concerns how I feel about X. But then again, I suppose if I have intense negative feelings towards some [gerund-based] activity, it's quite likely I won't be any good at it, which might also be a problem. – FumbleFingers Jan 15 '14 at 0:27
  • @FumbleFingers They're both pretty new. The earliest use of have a problem followed by an -ing form I found in Google Books was 1912. – StoneyB Jan 15 '14 at 1:26

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