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With or Without a Complement: The Form and Function of Prepositions

“Prepositions are not words to end sentences with” reads the joke commenting on a prescriptive grammar rule for prepositions. According to scholar G.O. Curme in his Parts of Speech and Accidence published in 1935, the traditional definition of a preposition is “a word that indicates a relation between the noun or pronoun it governs and another word, which may be a verb, an adjective or another noun or pronoun” (Huddleston 1984:91). For example, the preposition for relates the verb voted to the noun phrase the amendment in the sentence She voted for the amendment. In the sentence He was inspired by the newspaper article, the preposition by indicates a relationship between the adjective inspired and the noun phrase the newspaper article. A relationship between the noun phrase the man and the noun phrase puppies is indicated by the preposition with in the sentence The man with puppies sold us a dog. However, the notional definition “indicates a relation” is extremely vague and demands refinement.

Internal Structure

Belonging to a grammatical category consisting of a small closed word set (DeCarrico 2000:121), prepositions show no inflectional variation (Huddleston 1984:336). Most grammarians, however, describe a difference between simple and complex prepositions (Huddleston 1984:341). Simple prepositions, which are the majority of prepositions in the English language, consist of one word such as about, by, for, in, of, on, and with (Huddleston 1984:341; DeCarrico 2000:129; O’Dwyer 2000:95). Some grammarians also include a subclass under simple prepositions called “ing” prepositions such as concerning and including as in The book concerning English grammar was already checked out and The lists of words including prepositions was not exhaustive (O’Dwyer 2000:96). Prepositions ending with ing are often difficult to identify because their form is similar to present participles and gerunds but can be distinguished from similar forms with different functions by the existence of a noun phrases as their complements as well as the function of the prepositional phrase (O’Dwyer 2000:96). For example, the difference between the preposition concerning in the sentence Concerning the meeting, we should review our notes and the present participle playing in the sentence Playing the radio loudly, he missed my telephone call is that the preposition concerning functions as an adverbial modifying the entire clause we should review our notes while the present participle playing functions as the head of a verb clause modifying only the noun phrase he.

Unlike simple prepositions, complex prepositions are periphrastic consisting of two to four words including at least one simple preposition such as because of and in spite of in The cake was destroyed because of the mischievous dog and She earned her degree in linguistics in spite of her overly-supportive family (Huddleston 1984:341; O’Dwyer 2000:96-97). Also known as phrasal prepositions, complex prepositions are considered complex because their structure usually contains multiple prepositions, creating the appearance of more than one prepositional phrase (O’Dwyer 2000:96). However, the complex preposition with regard to in with regard to the nurturing supervisor does not have the same structure as the simple prepositions after and of in after many years of the tyrannical dean. Instead, the structure of the prepositional phrase with regard to the nurturing supervisor is primarily distinguished from the structure of the other prepositional phrase after many years of the tyrannical dean by the form of their heads (Huddleston 1984:341). Whereas the head of the second prepositional phrase is the simple preposition after, the head of the first prepositional phrase is the complex preposition with regard to. The complex preposition with regard to, although containing two prepositions and one noun in form, functions similarly to a single-word simple preposition as in regarding the nurturing supervisor (O’Dwyer 2000:96).

Prepositional phrases headed by complex prepositions are also distinguished from prepositional phrases containing other prepositional phrases by the grammaticality of the possible lexical items that create complex prepositions. Complex prepositions, unlike prepositional phrases containing other prepositional phrases, are idiomatic. The meaning of a complex preposition is determined by all the words as a whole. For example, the noun regard in the complex preposition with regard to cannot be substituted by any other noun without changing the form, function, and ultimately meaning of the preposition. In the prepositional phrase with regard to the nurturing supervisor, the noun regard cannot be replaced by the noun love to form the prepositional phrase with love to the nurturing supervisor with changing the phrase from a prepositional phrase headed by a complex preposition to a prepositional phrase containing another prepositional phrase. But, any number of noun phrases can form the complement of the simple preposition after in the prepositional phrase after many years of the tyrannical dean without changing the form or function of the head after. Therefore, the form and function of the prepositional phrases after decades of the tyrannical dean and after twelve anguish-inducing seconds of the tyrannical dean are similar to after many years of the tyrannical dean. The noun in a complex preposition like with regard to also functions differently from a noun phrasal functioning as the complement of a simple preposition in that the noun lacks the functional potential to take modifiers. For example, the noun years in the prepositional phrase after many years of the tyrannical dean has the functional potential to take the adjective many as well as any number of other modifiers. The noun regard, however, in the complex prepositional phrase with regard to the nurturing supervisor lacks the functional potential to take any modifier.

Because the form of prepositions is relatively invariable, some grammarians consider the internal structure of prepositional phrases more important than the internal structure of prepositions. As defined by Paul J. Hopper (1999) in A Short Course in Grammar, prepositions are “words that begin a prepositional phrase” (31). Such definition is again vague and rather circular in describing both prepositions and prepositional phrases. Instead, a more precise formal definition for prepositional phrases is that a prepositional phrase has an internal structure of a head in the form of a preposition directly followed by a prepositional complement in the form of a noun phrase (O’Dwyer 2000:94, 123, 129; Hopper 1999:31, 115). Examples of prepositional phrases include to Harry and because of the extremely tiny but wiry puppy, which are formed respectively by the prepositions to and because of directly followed by the noun phrases Harry and the extremely tiny but wiry puppy. Prepositional phrases also cannot be interrupted by intervening elements (Jacobs 1995:246). Therefore, the sentence James glanced lovingly at his wife is grammatical but *James glanced at lovingly his wife is not because the adverb lovingly cannot interrupt the head and complement of the prepositional phrase.

Although prepositions normally precede their complements in English grammar as in prepositional phrases (Huddleston 1984:337), prepositions can appear in constructions apart from their complements and even without complements (Huddleston 1984:338; Jacobs 1995:245). In English, interrogative sentences are form either by inserting a do operator or fronting the first auxiliary verb to create a yes-no question as in The cat likes tuna and Does the cat like tuna? or The puppy had been chewing on his toy and Had the puppy been chewing on his toy? or by fronting a wh word to create an open-ended question as in I gave three pumpkins to my little cousins and To whom did I give three pumpkins? (Jacobs 1995:246; Huddleston 1984:338). In the example I gave three pumpkins to my little cousins, the prepositional phrase to my little cousins consists of the head to and the complement my little cousins. To create an interrogative sentence, the prepositional complement is first replaced by a wh word as in I gave three pumpkins to whom and then the entire prepositional phrase containing the wh word is fronted and a do operator inserted to create the question To whom did I give three pumpkins? But, in English, an interrogative can also be formed by fronting only the wh word as in Who did I give three pumpkins to? (Jacobs 1995:245). Both forms are grammatically possible in English (Huddleston 1984:338). The difference, then, between To whom did I give three pumpkins? and Who did I give three pumpkins to? is a question of style, with the former more formal and the later more informal, rather than a matter of grammaticality.

In addition to immediately preceding and existing apart from their complements, prepositions can also appear in a form that lacks a prepositional complement such as the prepositions up and down in the examples The baby finally shut up and The woman reading quietly shot down the annoying man who asked for her phone number (Hopper 1999:31). Prepositions without complements are termed “marooned” prepositions (Hopper 1999:31, 121). Even though the annoying man at first appears to be a prepositional complement, the noun phrase is actually a direct object of the phrasal verb shot down, which means both up and down are marooned prepositions because neither have a prepositional complement. Marooned prepositions most frequently appear with phrasal verbs such as put up with in the example The tolerant man put up with the cat attacking the dog and as verb phrase complements such as take out in the example She took the trash out to the curb. Marooned prepositions in phrasal verb constructions are also termed “particles” (Jacobs 1995: 248).

Functional Potential

Although relatively invariable in form, prepositions and prepositional phrases are among the most versatile structures in the English language with a considerable variety of functional potential (DeCarrico 2000:121; Huddleston 1984:336). Huddleston (1984) identifies the primary functional potential of prepositions as taking noun phrases as complements and functioning as complements or modifiers for various other constructions (336). As abovementioned in the discussion about the form of prepositional phrases, prepositions have the functional potential to take noun phrases as complements such as the dog bowl and Monday in the prepositional phrases in the dog bowl and on Monday. The preposition preceding the complement such as during of during the football game and beneath of beneath the tree likewise function as the heads of the prepositional phrases.

Prepositions within the larger construction of the prepositional phrase also function as complements or modifiers to other structures including noun phrases, adjective phrases, and verb phrases (DeCarrico 2000:122). In the examples the painter of the famous watercolor and the especially tiny woman with the German hips, the prepositional phrases of the famous watercolor and with the German hips function respectively as the complement of the noun phrase the painter and as the modifier of the noun phrase the especially tiny woman (Huddleston 1984:336). As noun phrase modifiers, prepositional phrases function similarly to adjective phrases to describe or modify a noun phrase such as in the noun phrase the blue-haired lady in which the adjective phrase blue-haired describes the lady and in the noun phrase the lady with blue hair in which the prepositional phrase with blue hair also describes the noun phrase the lady (Hopper 1999:115). Prepositional phrases likewise function as complements of adjective phrases as in of clowns in afraid of clowns and as complements of verb phrases as in to the Jonas Brothers in listen to the Jonas Brothers as well as modifiers of adjective phrases like along the beach in green along the beach and modifiers of verb phrases like during the performance in danced during the performance (DeCarrico 2000:122, 124; Huddleston 1984:336).

Prepositional phrases functioning as complements differ from prepositional phrases functioning as modifiers in that the head of the noun, adjective, or verb phrase imposes collocation restrictions on the preposition (Huddleston 1984:336). In the example the painter of the famous watercolor and the similar example the author of the book, only a prepositional phrase with the head of following the noun phrase establishes a relationship between the creator and creation. Conversely, noun phrases with prepositional phrases as modifiers can precede almost any preposition as in the woman with the hips, the woman behind the tree, and the woman up the hill. Although adjective phrase complements are optional for some adjectives like green in green along the beach and sad in sad for the accident victims, certain adjectives like afraid and aware require complements as in the example afraid of clowns and the similar example aware of the dire consequences (Huddleston 1984:336; DeCarrico 2000:124). Such adjectives as afraid and aware also impose collocation restrictions on the subsequent preposition; the adjective afraid can be followed by the prepositions of and for but not on or under as in The mother was afraid for the little boy but not *The mother was afraid under the little boy.

Complements of verb phrases also differ from modifiers of verb phrases because the head of the verb phrase likewise imposes collocation restrictions on the head of the prepositional phrase (Huddleston 1984:336). In the example danced during the performance, the prepositional phrase during the performance modifies the verb phrase danced but is not determined by the head of the verb phrase. Any number of prepositions can replace the preposition during without changing the grammaticality of the phrase such as danced after the performance, danced in the performance, and danced despite the performance. When the prepositional phrase functions as a complement of the verb phrase, however, the head of the verb phrase determines the head of the prepositional phrase. Verbs such as listen and rely require specific prepositions for the prepositional phrase to function as a complement (DeCarrico 2000:124). Therefore, the verb phrases listen to the wind and rely on his wife are grammatical but *listen between the wind and *rely beside his wife are ungrammatical. Prepositional phrases can furthermore function as either modifiers or complements for verbs like listen depending on the preposition in the head of the prepositional phrase; the prepositional phrase to the wind functions as a complement in the verb phrase listen to the wind while despite the wind functions as a modifier in listen despite the wind.

Some verbs such as rely and approve allow only one preposition such as on and of as the head of the prepositional phrase functioning as a complement to the verb phrase as in has relied on his salary and will have approved of the procedures. Other verbs like listen and look permit multiple prepositions that create different meanings like to and for and at and in to occupy the head of the prepositional phrase functioning as a verb phrase complement as in listen to the music and listen for the train and look at the kitten and look in the oven. Verbs with fixed sets of prepositions that can function as the head of the prepositional phrase functioning as the complement to the verb phrase are termed “prepositional” verbs (Hopper 1999:126). As described by Jeannette S. DeCarrico (2000) in The Structure of English, prepositional verbs form syntactic constituents; the relationship between the verb and the preposition is dictated by the syntax (132). For example, in the verb phrase containing a prepositional verb argue about her new duties, the verb argue requires the preposition about but still means “dispute an issue” just as in the sentence Jack and Jill argue; the preposition about, although obligatory with the verb argue, similarly still means “indicating a relationship” just as in the noun phrase the book about grammar (O’Dwyer 2000:94). Additional examples of prepositional verbs include cope with, argue with, care about, and object to (DeCarrico 2000:132). Prepositional verbs are always intransitive, consisting of a verb phrase followed by a prepositional phrase, which functions as the verb phrase complement.

Similar to prepositional verbs in that the preposition is obligatory, prepositions follow verbs to create a verb form termed “phrasal” verbs (Hopper 1999:122; DeCarrico 2000:132). Unlike prepositional verbs, however, phrasal verbs always consist of a verb phrase followed by a marooned preposition functioning as a particle as in the examples shut up and pass out (Hopper 1999:122). As described by DeCarrico (2000), phrasal verbs form semantic constituents; the relationship between the verb and the preposition is determined by the meaning of the phrasal verb as a single lexical item (DeCarrico 2000:132-133). For example, the phrasal verb run into is quite semantically different from the verb and preposition run into in the sentences The man ran into the burning building after turning the corner and The man ran into the burning building to save the puppy. In the first example of run into as a phrasal verb meaning “to encounter,” the verb run and the preposition into form a constituent to which the noun phrase the burning building is the direct object. The phrasal verb run into could also be replaced by the verb encounter as in the sentence The man encountered the burning building after turning the corner without significantly altering the meaning. In the second example of run into as a verb and preposition, the preposition into functions as the head of the prepositional phrase into the burning building. The prepositional phrase into the burning building then functions as the complement of the verb phrase ran. Although functionally different, the semantic difference between the first run into and the second run into is more striking. In the first sentence, the man turned the corner and then encountered a building on fire. In the second sentence, the man physically entered the building on fire to rescue the puppy; the preposition into describes the direction in which the man ran. Phrasal verbs are therefore idiomatic because the meaning of the phrasal verbs cannot be deduced from the individual words in their form (Hopper 1999:122). The phrasal verb look into as a synonym for investigate cannot be defined by combining the definitions of the verb look and the preposition into just as put up with cannot be determined to mean tolerate by individually analyzing the three words from which the phrasal verb is formed (Jacobs 1995:162). Therefore, the phrasal verb run into can only be understood idiomatically as a single unit meaning “to encounter,” but the preposition of the verb and preposition run into can be replaced by other prepositions such as around and from to describe a different direction in which the ran man without altering the meaning of the verb run.

Also unlike prepositional verbs, phrasal verbs may be either transitive or intransitive (Jacobs 1995:248). In the example My neighbor looks down on rowdy children, the phrasal verb looks down on is transitive because the noun phrase rowdy children is the direct object of the verb phrase. Conversely, the phrasal verb pass out is intransitive as in the example The extremely pregnant woman passed out because the verb phrase as a synonym for faint cannot take an object. Phrasal verbs are also separable or nonseparable, meaning the preposition may or may not be required to directly follow the verb (Jacobs 1995:248-249). Within separable phrasal verbs, the preposition is allowed to move from the position adjacent to the verb to another position in the sentence such as in the phrasal verb look up in the examples James looked up the word in the dictionary and James looked the word up in the dictionary (Jacobs 1995:248). Other phrasal verbs are nonseparable because the preposition must allows directly follow the verb as in the phrasal verb get away with in the example He got away with the crime but not *He got the crime away with or *He got away the crime with (Jacobs 1995:249).

The formal difference between prepositions and adverbs is sometimes difficult to determine because marooned prepositions function similarly to adverbs functioning as verb phrase complements (Hopper 1999:31-32). Hopper (1999) offers the example of the preposition down and the adverb ashore (32). Since one primary function potential of prepositions is taking noun phrases as complements, the word ashore is clearly not a preposition because the prepositional phrase *ashore the island in the example *The pirates sent a boat ashore the island is impossible and ungrammatical. The word down, however, does have the functional potential to take a noun phrase as a complement as in the prepositional phrase down the beach in the example The pirates sent a boat down the beach. The ambiguity between prepositions and adverbs arises when a preposition lacks a complement. Both ashore and down function as the head of the verb phrase complement in the examples The pirates sent a boat ashore and The pirates sent a boat down the beach. However, the noun phrase the beach can be eliminated without changing the grammaticality of the sentence as in The pirates send a boat down. The word down still functions as a verb phrase complement but now appears to have the form of an adverb. However, with the functional potential to take a noun phrase as a complement, the word down still also remains a preposition in form.

Finally, prepositional phrases also function as adverbials and adjuncts to clause structures (DeCarrico 2000:122; Hopper 1999:119). For example, the prepositional phrase In my opinion formed from the preposition in and the noun phrase my opinion functions as an adjunct in the sentence In my opinion, preservation is vital to all libraries. As Hopper (1999) defines, adjuncts frame an entire clause (66-67). Therefore, the prepositional phrase In my opinion frames the entire clause preservation is vital to all libraries as my opinion. Adjuncts are similar to complements of noun phrases, adjective phrases, and verb phrases (O’Dwyer 2000:172). Other examples of adjuncts include with all due respect and for the love of God. Prepositional phrases also function as adverbials, which Hopper (1999) defines as phrases that express time, place, or manner of a clause (67). For example, the prepositional phrase in the dark forest functions as an adverbial to the clause The army encountered fierce warriors in the sentence The army encountered fierce warriors in the dark forest by expressing the place in which the main clause occurred (Hopper 1999:119). Thus, the prepositional phrase in the dark forest describes the place in which the entire clause occurred. Adverbials function similarly to modifiers of noun phrases, adjective phrases, and verb phrases (O’Dwyer 2000:172). Both adjuncts and adverbials are optional and can be removed without changing the grammaticality of the main clause.

References

DeCarrico, Jeanette S. 2000. The Structure of English: Studies in form and function for language teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Dwyer, Bernard. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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