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Grammatical Form of English Prepositions

Traditional grammars define prepositions as “words that indicate a relation between the noun or pronoun and another word, which may be a verb, an adjective, or another noun or pronoun.” Belonging to a grammatical category consisting of a small closed word set, prepositions show no inflectional variation. Most grammars, however, describe a difference between simple and complex prepositions as well as the difference between prepositions and postpositions.

Simple Prepositions

Simple prepositions, which are the majority of prepositions in the English language, consist of a single word. Some of the most common simple English prepositions include the following:

  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • around
  • as
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • between
  • beyond
  • by
  • despite
  • down
  • during
  • except
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • inside
  • into
  • like
  • near
  • next
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • out
  • outside
  • over
  • past
  • per
  • than
  • through
  • throughout
  • to
  • toward
  • towards
  • under
  • unlike
  • until
  • up
  • versus
  • via
  • with
  • within
  • without

Some grammars also include a subclass under simple prepositions called -ing prepositions. Some of the most common simple -ing prepositions include the following:

  • barring
  • concerning
  • considering
  • excluding
  • failing
  • following
  • including
  • notwithstanding
  • regarding
  • respecting

Prepositions ending with -ing are often difficult to identify because their form is similar to the present participle of English verbs 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. For example,

  • Concerning the meeting, we should review our notes. (preposition)
  • Playing the radio loudly, he missed my telephone call. (verb)

The difference between the preposition concerning in the first sentence and the present participle playing in the second sentence is that the preposition concerning functions as an adjunct 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. Likewise, the noun phrase the meeting functions as the prepositional complement of the preposition concerning, but the noun phrase the radio functions a direct object of the verb playing.

Complex Prepositions

Unlike simple prepositions, complex prepositions are periphrastic consisting of two to four words including at least one simple preposition. Some of the most common complex English prepositions include the following:

  • according to
  • ahead of
  • apart from
  • as far as
  • as for
  • as of
  • as opposed to
  • as per
  • as regards
  • as well as
  • aside from
  • because of
  • by means of
  • by virtue of
  • close to
  • due to
  • except for
  • far from
  • for the sake of
  • in accordance with
  • in addition to
  • in front of
  • in lieu of
  • in order to
  • in place of
  • inside of
  • instead of
  • left of
  • near to
  • next to
  • on account of
  • on behalf of
  • on to
  • on top of
  • out from
  • out of
  • outside of
  • prior to
  • rather than
  • regardless of
  • right of
  • such as
  • subsequent to
  • thanks to
  • with regard to
  • with respect to

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. For example:

  • on account of the injustice
  • after years of the injustice

The complex preposition on account of in on account of the injustice does not have the same structure as the simple prepositions after and of in after years of the injustice. Instead, the structure of the prepositional phrase on account of the injustice is primarily distinguished from the structure of the other prepositional phrase after years of the injustice by the form of their heads. Whereas the head of the second prepositional phrase is the simple preposition after, the head of the first prepositional phrase is the complex preposition on account of. The complex preposition on account of, although containing two prepositions and one noun in form, functions similarly to a single-word simple preposition.

The following tree diagram illustrates the difference between complex prepositions and simple prepositions:

English Prepositions Simple Versus Complex

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 teacher, the noun regard cannot be replaced by the noun love to form the prepositional phrase with love to the teacher with changing the phrase from a prepositional phrase headed by a complex preposition to a prepositional phrase containing another prepositional phrase.

Conversely, any number of noun phrases can form the complement of the simple preposition after in the prepositional phrase after many years of suffering without changing the form or function of the head after. Therefore, the form and function of the prepositional phrases after decades of suffering and after twelve anguish-inducing seconds of suffering are similar to after many years of suffering.

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 suffering 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 teacher lacks the functional potential to take any modifiers.

Prepositions Versus Postpositions

In the English language, a handful of “prepositions” follow, rather than precede, the prepositional complement. Prepositions that follow the prepositional complement are referred to as postpositions. Some of the most common English postpositions include the following:

  • ago (postposition)
  • apart (postposition)
  • aside (postposition)
  • away (postposition)
  • hence (postposition)
  • notwithstanding (postposition)
  • on (postposition)
  • through (postposition)
  • withal (postposition)

For example:

  • three years ago
  • the evidence notwithstanding
  • such examples aside
  • the whole night through

Technically, however, a postposition is not a subcategory of preposition. Instead, both prepositions and postpositions are subcategories of the collective category of adposition. Because postpositions are much rarer than prepositions in the English language, many grammars refer to postpositions as a subcategory of prepositions.

Although English prepositions lack inflectional variation, most grammars describe a difference between simple and complex prepositions as well as the difference between prepositions and postpositions.

References

Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Dwyer, Bernard T. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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