Some folks are celebrating Halloween right now. So I thought I would mention a scary creature that many people claim to have seen but which actually does not exist.
English grammar books like to talk about “prepositions” as if they are real like rocks and water. But prepositions are more like light, sometimes wave and sometimes particle.
“The teacher looked over my essay.”
Can you find the preposition? According to the textbook it’s over. But in this sentence over is actually a part of the verb phrase looked over.
Over could only be a “preposition” if I wrote something and the teacher looked beyond what I had written, maybe at a pastoral scene outside the window.
The easiest way to see that over isn’t a preposition is by substitution.
- The teacher looked over my essay.
- The teacher read my essay.
- The teacher destroyed my essay.
- The teacher laughed at my essay.
In cases 1. and 4. the “preposition” is an intrinsic part of the verb phrase. A couple ungrammatical examples show why:
- * The teacher looked my essay.
- * The teacher liked over my essay.
There are some cases that we really want to call prepositions. But they’re not. Here’s an example:
- The dog ran to the door.
- The dog ran away.
- The dog ran quickly.
We’ve all been taught that to the door is a prepositional phrase. But this just isn’t a helpful way of describing English. As you can see in the dog examples, to the door can be substituted by all sorts of things. And not one of them is a “prepositional phrase.” It’s far better to simply call all those chunks of language “adverbial phrases” and leave it at that.
In my opinion, “prepositional phrase” is an unhelpful grammatical category. It doesn’t give us any insight into the nature of the phrase itself and why and how it is being used.
In summary, “prepositions” are either an optional part of a verb phrase or an optional part of an adverbial phrase.
Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as a prepositional phrase.”
P.S. I think all clauses can be described with only three constituents: nouns, verbs and adverbs.