A scary ghost in your grammar book

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.

For example:

“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.

  1. The teacher looked over my essay.
  2. The teacher read my essay.
  3. The teacher destroyed my essay.
  4. 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:

  1. * The teacher looked my essay.
  2. * 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:

  1. The dog ran to the door.
  2. The dog ran away.
  3. 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.

40 thoughts on “A scary ghost in your grammar book

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    I’m not sure if I understand you…

    In this sentence, is “over” a preposition?:

    “I tried to hide from the teacher by holding my essay in front of my face, but the teacher looked over my essay.”

    In your example, we assume by context that the usage is an idiom meaning “peruse” but in my example, the usage is not idiomatic and is, IMHO, a true prepositional phrase.

    But ISTM that you want to say that prepositional phrases are uniformly indistinguishable from adverbial phrases, which I think is a hard sell.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    Knock it off. I stumbled on this article when I checked up on this blog. You bowl me over and this article blows me away. So help me out and just cut it out. I’ll never go back. I’ll have to face up to the challenges. I insist on it. I’ll keep at it. Please lighten up. I should send away for a new grammar book.

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    There once was a man from Australia,
    Whose son thought prepositions bacchanalia,
    So he complained each time,
    with considerable whine,
    “Why did you bring that book
    I don’t like to be read to
    out of about Down Under up for?

  4. Dannii says:

    Bad David! Go read the CGEL now!

    to the door is a prepositional phrase. In the sentence you gave it has the structural position of an adjunct, but that doesn’t make it not a prepositional phrase.

    In a sentence like “I insist on being awesome!” the preposition phrase is part of the argument structure.

  5. WoundedEgo says:

    I don’t think that “I’ll drink to that” is a prepositional phrase, per se, but it may be relevant just the same!

    There is nothing at stake here.

  6. Dannii says:

    Bipartite verbs, like “looked over” are really interesting! In English they’re not that common, but in other languages they’re much more common.

    Now, why does “looked over” mean something different than “over looked”?

  7. David Ker says:

    Here’s the deal. On one hand there are many kinds of “prepositional phrases” that don’t really tell us anything locational or directional adverbially about a clause. On the other hand there are myriads of ways in English to say “prepositional phrase” kinds of things without a “preposition.” That’s why “preposition” and “prepositional phrase” are useless grammatical categories. It’s like saying, Volkswagens are cars because they have radios. It’s trying to make an incidental form tells us something about the function. Far better in my opinion to make the phrase “prepositional phrase” illegal and take away the teaching license of anyone who tries to use it. Then the world would be a safer place for descriptive linguistics.

    @Dannii, i sincerely hope to never read the Cambridge Grammar of English Language. It might permanently damage my understanding of grammar. Much like trying to appreciate Canadian music by listening to Justin Bieber.

  8. Dannii says:

    If you stop using the term “preposition” then what will you call them?

    “An optional part of a verb phrase, or an optional part of an adverbial phrase, or an obligatory part of other verb phrases, or an optional (or sometimes obligatory) part of a nominal phrase, or an optional (or sometimes obligatory) part of another prepositional phrase”… oh no. So… substitute in your definition of preposition into that definition and hope you can come up with something that isn’t both infinitely recursive and also so inclusive as to be meaningless…

  9. David Ker says:

    I would categorize prepositions as particles and then concentrate on identifying adverbial phrases by semantics. Function and meaning break down at the word level. As you know, cross-linguistically, prepositions can be postpositions, adpositions, supersegmentals, or nil. You might be detecting that I don’t favor generative grammar. 🙂

  10. Dannii says:

    Heh, I think I have as big an aversion to “particle” as you do to “preposition”. I think it is a useless term! I’d agree that preposition is a bad term from a functionalist perspective, but I’d think of it as much more of a structuralist term. I think you’re railing against a structuralist term being used in a functionalist context perhaps?

    Prepositions are a type of adposition yes, but they have nothing to do with supersegmentals etc. Some languages just don’t have things other languages do. You don’t try to look for affixes in an isolating language. Similarly some languages have prepositions (I like Wikipedia’s dfn: the head of a phrase that act as a complement or adjunct of noun phrases and verb phrases) and some don’t.

    Entirely unrelated to that is that many of the functions which prepositions are used for in English can be expressed using other structures, or just not expressed at all.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    “[Noam] Chomsky too (1986a: 142) talks of the preposition of as ‘semantically empty’.”

    “Many scholars took the view that prepositions are meaningless. Aristotle, who did not distinguish prepositions from other σύνδεσμοι, asserted that ‘syndesmos is a meaningless word'(Poet. 1456b).”

    “The Hebrew scholar William Chomsky (1970: 89), father of Noam, even posited, quite simply, a “principal of prepositional interchangability” for Hebrew prepositions.”

    “when Greek speakers started using these adverbs prepositionally, they combined them with a simplex preposition.”

    EXcerpts OUT OF Greek PREpositions: FROM Antiquity TO the Present BY Pietro Bortone published AT Oxford University Press IN 2010.

    (POST scripts: “prepositionally” is an adverb. “combined with” is a verb combined WITH a preposition. “simplex” as a word is really not a simplex once it’s divided IN-TO its parts. “sim” may be Noam’s surface structure FOR Aristotle’s deeper “syn”.)

  12. David Ker says:

    Because so many of them have been fused first as prefixes and later as part of the stem. In English we write prepositions as isolated particles…except when we don’t. Again what Dannii said is true, “many of the functions which prepositions are used for in English can be expressed using other structures, or just not expressed at all.”

    I’m trying to remember what this has to do with Bible translation. I think there are at least two things we can learn from this. First, talking (and writing) about language is problematic unless we can agree on our terminology. Second, in Bible translation we translate meaning not words. And meaning begins at the phrase level (as in noun phrase, verb phrase).

  13. BradK says:

    “P.S. I think all clauses can be described with only three constituents: nouns, verbs and adverbs.”

    No clauses act as adjectives?

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    David wrote: First, talking (and writing) about language is problematic unless we can agree on our terminology. Second, in Bible translation we translate meaning not words. And meaning begins at the phrase level (as in noun phrase, verb phrase).

    Very good! Thank you for stating this. You are soooooo right.

    I like to keep the distinction by separating syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. I don’t do this consistently, however, and wish I did.

    In discussions we tend to use technical terms which are too ambiguous to be useful. Prepositional phrase is one such creature. This ambiguity is very obvious in entry level Greek grammars where such things as genitive, for example, is said to mean possession or it has the same meaning as of. To be fair, I think grammars try to not state this in such a bald fashion as I have here. But, the concept is taught nevertheless (if not taught, it’s still caught). This leads to the creation of several categories of genitive. We even end up with statements like, future aorist or historical present which just confuse the issue all the more.

    It would be much better (IMO) to use a functional approach and illustrate the functions with various syntactic solutions. The student’s insight into how language works, and how it coheres as a linguistic system, would be greatly expanded. As has been stated, the adverbial nature of English prepositions would be more obvious (especially in Greek, Robertson labors this point). It would also help people “see” the post-positional nature of prepositions when “added” to a verb to make bipartite verbs.

  15. J K Gayle says:

    in Bible translation we translate meaning not words

    looks like you have Plato and Chomsky on your side too. “prepositions are mere shadows on the walls of the Cave, simple performed and imperfect competence.” oops, did I say “on” the wall and “on” your side? Scratch that please. You know what I must “mean.”. I was just speaking of mice and men.

  16. Dannii Willis says:

    What about for languages which could be argued to not have structures like noun or verb phrases?

  17. WoundedEgo says:

    From what I understand, languages develop piecemeal. Some of the finery comes later. One example is the Greek adjective, which appears to have evolved from consecutive nouns. The second noun developed its own form that distinguished it from the noun it modifies.

    I must apologize for saying that there is nothing at stake in this discussion, because, as always, discussions like this stimulate ideas and observations, and that’s always worthwhile.

  18. David Ker says:

    @WoundedEgo, thanks. That’s so true.

    @Dannii, my P.S. was referring to English (and it works for Bantu) but isolating languages could throw that out the window I suppose.

    @JK, of course you’re right.

  19. Peter Kirk says:

    So I have to throw out my old book “The Theology of Prepositions”, which for example tells how huper teaches substitutionary atonement? 😉

    More seriously, the language I was working with, on Bible translation, had no prepositions only postpositions – and some of the postpositions were generally attached to the noun with the decisions whether to attach or not being phonologically determined. In other words, they were a kind of clitic. Was the phrase a prepositional one or a noun one with a case ending? So basically I agree with you that the category of prepositional phrase is an unhelpful one.

  20. David Ker says:

    Peter, could the clitic attach to the end of a noun phrase or only to the head noun? Former case being true clitic, latter… I don’t know. But of course you’re right PREpositions can be postionsPOST. And we currently have a Hebrew expert staying with us that is doing work on what he calls “particles” but what others might call “prepositions” and what I call “connectives,” they can also be conjunctions, discourse markers, oh, the names multiply!

    You can build just about any theology you want from prepositions in Greek. 😉

  21. Mike Sangrey says:

    You can build just about any theology you want from prepositions in Greek. 😉

    O!, Great! And all this time I thought theology should be PROpositional.

    LOL

    If we could just get a few Apositional theologians, I think we could make some progress. Errr…not to be confused with oppositional theologians. We have plenty of those, thank you very much.

  22. jkgayle says:

    discourse markers

    Oh no, please don’t call them that. Otherwise, we’re going to have consider the shadows on the wall as not just untranslatable Words in the deep-cave meaningful Sentence but as things real people do and say and write in interactions with one another with wordplayful translatability. And we might have to conceive of the Bible, its Hebrew and Hellenized Hellene, in ways other than how Plato and Aristotle thought of Greek logos and of logic. These might even be personal ways of conceiving of our language(s).

    Please, let’s deal with “biblical” “meanings” and not Bible words; and, forevermore, let’s not call רמול and רמא “discourse markers.” Let’s let Rivka Shemesh have her “Direct Discourse Markers in Mishnaic [and Biblical] Hebrew” (Journal of Semitic Studies, 2006), mere particles, epherma, discardable carriers (like nameless, invisible translators ironically) always and only pointing to what really counts in the real clear and decoded message.

  23. Peter Kirk says:

    David, in that language the head and last element of a noun phrase is always a noun, or a pronoun, infinitive etc which declines just like a noun. So I don’t think the distinction you ask can be made. But phonologically this is a clitic because it is unstressed, one of a number of exceptions to the general rule that the last syllable of a word is stressed. That distinguishes this from a regular noun case ending which is stressed.

    These people would of course tend to take a postpositional position in their theology. Or is that the theological analogue of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? 😉

  24. Mike Sangrey says:

    Another comment regarding the functional nature of language, communication, and therefore translation:

    Professional translators are usually so concerned with the meaning of a text that they seldom give much thought to the grammatical structures of source or receptor languages, because their task is to understand texts, not to analyze them. If, as already mentioned, translators thoroughly understand a source text, they do not need to worry about whether to use nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a particular order so as to represent the meaning. These decisions are made almost automatically.” — Eugene Nida

  25. Wayne Leman says:

    These decisions are made almost automatically.

    Nida could say that because he was speaking of professional translators who are fluent in both the source and target languages. If they allow their language fluency to govern how they speak or write, what they speak or write will be almost automatic. And it usually will be grammatical and natural, unless they get tangled up a bit which happens to everyone once in awhile.

    English Bible translators, OTOH, are seldom professional translators. Few have ever had any training in translation. Tis a pity, since the document they are translating is quite important. Oh, how I wish that we could get rid of the notion that just because someone reads one or more of the biblical language well, and has a native speaker fluency in English, they can translate the Bible well to English. No! Except for a few remarkable individuals (such as J.B. Phillips), to translate professionally requires that one be trained professionally.

  26. Mike Sangrey says:

    Except for a few remarkable individuals (such as J.B. Phillips), to translate professionally requires that one be trained professionally.

    I feel your sadness. And I agree.

    I find it poignant and ironic that the intention of such needed training is to produce the skill to see and even to “feel” the linguistic normal.

  27. Andrew says:

    I know I’m doing some thread necromancy here by posting a comment so long after the article was originally made, but I had a comment about the easiest way to test between prepositions and particles.

    In a linguistics class I took in college, we were not taught to substitute words (because of all of the ambiguity concerning “prepositional phrases,”) but instead simply to change the word order to test if a particular word was being used as a preposition or a particle. If changing the word order makes the sentence non-sense then the word is a preposition and if the sentence still makes sense, the word is a particle.

    “Jack and Jill ran up the hill.”
    “Jack and Jill ran the hill up.”

    In the examples above, “up” is a preposition.

    “Jack ran up the bill.”
    “Jack ran the bill up.”

    In these examples, “up” is a particle since it still makes sense when the word order has changed.

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