Grammar Basics: Prepositions

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Prepositions have the semantic feature that they allow us to locate nouns in time and space. In, on and towards all do this in the phrases in the cupboard, on the next day, towards the end.

Morphologically, they are generally short, often consisting of just two letters: in, to, of, at

Syntactically, they normally precede rather than follow nouns. I’m going to bed, and not *I’m going bed to. They can, however, occur at the end of a relative clause: The girl I gave my heart to.

Most linguists recognise complex prepositions, which consist of more than one word, such as because of, according to and as far as. However, as the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ recognises

. . .  there are borderline cases with complex prepositions. It is not always clear whether a multi-word combination is a complex preposition-that is, a fixed expression with a special meaning-or a free combination of preposition ( + article) + noun + preposition. At the expense of is an example of an in-between case.

I say ‘most linguists recognise complex prepositions’ because Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, don’t. They analyse by means of, for example, not as a complex preposition, but as a preposition, by, followed by a Noun Phrase, means of. They point out that ‘if by means of were really a single preposition, we wouldn’t expect to be able to insert similar after the first part of it and drop the last part to get by similar means.’

Huddleston and Pullum also ‘extend the membership of the preposition class beyond the words that traditional grammar calls prepositions’ because they ‘see no justification for restricting it to words that have Noun Phrase complements’. They argue that both before and  know can have as their complements a Noun Phrase or a subordinate clause, or can have no complement at all, but where traditional grammar regards know as a verb in all three cases, it regards before as a preposition in the first, a subordinating conjunction in the second and as an adverb in the third. They ‘see this triple assignment as an unnecessary complication. It is much simpler to give before a uniform analysis, treating it as a preposition in all three, just as know is a verb in all three’.

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7 responses to “Grammar Basics: Prepositions

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Pronouns | Caxton

  2. Very interesting! I didn’t know the Huddlestone & Pullum case against complex prepositions, which I assume from the way you introduce it is made in the CGEL and which seems extraordinary to me. The example you cite isn’t persuasive to me: “by similar means”is an adverbial phrase, and it is not obvious how the fact that some so-called complex prepositions can be broken apart and recombined to give adverbial phrases is supposed to be a problem for proponents of complex prepositions.

    Is there no alternate resolution of the problem along the lines of there being some generative system of phrases that can function as prepositions? If there were such a system, and we call the phrases TPPs (for true prepositional phrases), then H&P give an example where a Prep + DP + Prep gives a TPP. This couldn’t be an unconstrained rule, but “at” + DP + “of” seems to admit a lot of instances (“at the not quite unaffordable expense of”, …)

    I’m more sympathetic to the second H&P suggestion. Maybe their uniform analysis subsumes my thoughts along the lines of TPPs.


    • I’ve taken H and P’s account not from the CGEL, which I don’t have, but from the stripped-down version ‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’. I’ve probably done them an injustice by selective quotation (always a danger), but I just wanted to show that there can be more than one way of analysing structures whose traditional descriptions we might otherwsise take for granted. I won’t attempt to summarise their exposition any further here, but it comes in section 8 (‘Prepositional idioms and fossilization’) of Chapter 7 of the Student’s Introduction, if you can get hold of a copy.


      • Klégr, 2007, Review of “Grammaticalization and English Complex Prepositions: A corpus­-based study”

        This review states that the above view is due to Huddleston’s 1984 grammar, and says in essence that these kind of constructions exist but they are idiomatic in nature; “they are merely frequent free constructions or phrases”, so do not constitute a generative class; the rival view is that they are generative and can be given an adequate syntactic characterisation.

        Probably it is worthwhile for us to invest in copies of the CGEL – it is expensive, but so is the time we spend researching these issues to reach hesitant conclusions.


  3. Pingback: ‘Grammar Basics: Prepositions’ by Barrie England | Rakesh Patel

  4. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Conjunctions | Caxton

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