Prepositions (or more generally adpositions, see below) are a grammatically distinct class of words whose most central members characteristically express spatial or temporal relations (such as the English words in, under, towards, before) or serve to mark various syntactic functions and semantic roles (such as the English words of, for). In that the primary function is relational, a preposition typically combines with another constituent (called its complement) to form a prepositional phrase, relating the complement to the context in which the phrase occurs.
The word preposition comes from Latin, a language in which such a word is usually placed before its complement. (Thus it is pre-positioned.) English is another such language. In many languages (e.g. Urdu, Turkish, Hindi, Korean and Japanese), the words with this grammatical function come after, not before, the complement. Such words are then commonly called postpositions. Similarly, circumpositions consist of two parts that appear on both sides of the complement. The technical term used to refer collectively to prepositions, postpositions, and circumpositions is adposition. Some linguists use the word "preposition" instead of "adposition" for all three cases.
Some examples of English prepositions (marked as bold) as used in phrases are:
There are many different types of adpositions, and some adpositions can also be classified as verbs, nouns, or adjectives. It is thus impossible to provide an absolute definition that picks out all and only the adpositions in every language. The following features, however, are often required of adpositions.
The following properties are characteristic of most adpositional systems.
Preposition stranding is a syntactic construct in which a preposition with an object occurs somewhere other than immediately next to its object. For example: Whom did you give it to? where to refers to whom, which is placed at the beginning of the sentence because it is an interrogative word. The above sentence is much more common and natural than the equivalent sentence without stranding: To whom did you give it? Preposition stranding is most commonly found in English, as well as North Germanic languages such as Swedish. The existence of preposition stranding in German and Dutch is debated. Preposition stranding is also found in languages outside the Germanic family, such as Vata and Gbadi (languages of the Niger–Congo) and the dialects of some North American French speakers.
Students are commonly taught that prepositions cannot end a sentence, although there is no rule prohibiting that use. Similar rules arose during the rise of classicism, when they were applied to English in imitation of classical languages in which they were found, such as Latin.
Winston Churchill is said to have written, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put", illustrating the awkwardness that would result from a rule against the use of terminal prepositions. However, the attribution of this quote to Churchill is almost certainly apocryphal. The example is also not a perfect example, because in that sentence up is a particle of the verb "put" rather than a true preposition. A correct rearrangement would be "This is the sort of English with which I will not put up" (preposition in bold), which still sounds awkward, at least in casual speech.
Adpositions can be organized into subclasses according to various criteria. These can be based on directly observable properties (such as the adposition's form or its position in the sentence) or on less visible properties (such as the adposition's meaning or function in the context at hand).
Simple adpositions consist of a single word, while complex adpositions consist of a group of words that act as one unit. Some examples of complex prepositions in English are:
The boundary between simple and complex adpositions is not clear-cut and for the most part arbitrary. Many simple adpositions are derived from complex forms (e.g. with + in → within, by + side → beside) through grammaticalization. This change takes time, and during the transitional stages the adposition acts in some ways like a single word, and in other ways like a multi-word unit. For example, current German orthographic conventions recognize the indeterminate status of the following adpositions, allowing two spellings:
The boundary between complex adpositions and free combinations of words is also a fuzzy one. For English, this involves structures of the form "preposition + (article) + noun + preposition". Many sequences in English, such as in front of, that are traditionally regarded as prepositional phrases are not so regarded by linguists. The following characteristics are good indications that a given combination is "frozen" enough to be considered a complex preposition in English:
Complex prepositions develop through the grammaticalization of commonly used free combinations. This is an ongoing process that introduces new prepositions into English.
The position of an adposition with respect to its complement allows the following subclasses to be defined:
The terms "preposition" and "postposition" are more commonly used than the general adposition. Whether a language has primarily prepositions or postpositions is seen as an important aspect of its typological classification, correlated with many other properties of the language.
It is usually straightforward to establish whether an adposition precedes or follows its complement. In some cases, the complement may not appear in a typical position. For example, in preposition stranding constructions, the complement appears before the preposition:
In other cases, the complement of the adposition is absent:
The adpositions in the examples are generally still considered prepositions because when they form a phrase with the complement (in more ordinary constructions), they must appear first.
Some adpositions can appear on either side of their complement; these can be called ambipositions (Reindl 2001, Libert 2006):
An ambiposition entlang (along). It can be put before or after the noun related to it (but with different noun cases attached to it).
Another adposition surrounds its complement, called a circumposition:
"Circumposition" can be a useful descriptive term, though most circumpositional phrases can be broken down into a more hierarchical structure, or given a different analysis altogether. For example, the Mandarin example above could be analyzed as a prepositional phrase headed by cóng ("from"), taking the postpositional phrase bīngxīang lǐ ("refrigerator inside") as its complement. Alternatively, the cóng may be analyzed as not a preposition at all (see the section below regarding coverbs).
Melis (2003) proposes the descriptive term interposition for adpositions in the structures such as the following:
An interposition is not an adposition which appears inside its complement as the two nouns do not form a single phrase (there is no *word word or *page page). Examples of actually interposed adpositions can be found in Latin (e.g. summa cum laude, lit. "highest with praise"). But they are always related to a more basic prepositional structure.
Noun phrases are the most typical complements to adpositions, but adpositions can in fact be the adjuncts to a variety of syntactic categories, much like verbs.
Also like verbs, adpositions can appear without a complement; see Adverbs below.
Some adpositions could be described as combining with two complements:
It is more commonly assumed, however, that Sammy and the following predicate first forms a "small clause", which then becomes the single complement of the preposition. (In the first example above, a word (such as as) may be considered to be elided, which, if present, would clarify the grammatical relationship.)
An adposition can also, in itself, function as a complement:
Adpositions can be used to express a wide range of semantic relations between their complement and the rest of the context. The following list is not an exhaustive classification:
Most common adpositions are highly polysemous, and much research is devoted to the description and explanation of the various interconnected meanings of particular adpositions. In many cases a primary, spatial meaning can be identified, which is then extended to non-spatial uses by metaphorical or other processes.
In some contexts, adpositions appear in contexts where their semantic contribution is minimal, perhaps altogether absent. Such adpositions are sometimes referred to as functional or case-marking adpositions, and they are lexically selected by another element in the construction, or fixed by the construction as a whole.
It is usually possible to find some semantic motivation for the choice of a given adposition, but it is generally impossible to explain why other semantically motivated adpositions are excluded in the same context. The selection of the correct adposition in these cases is a matter of syntactic well-formedness.
Spatial adpositions can be divided into two main classes, namely directional and static ones. A directional adposition usually involves motion along a path over time, but can also denote a non-temporal path. Examples of directional adpositions include to, from, towards, into, along and through.
A static adposition normally does not involve movement. Examples of these include at, in, on, beside, behind, under and above.
Directional adpositions differ from static ones in that they normally can't combine with a copula to yield a predicate, though there are some exceptions to this, as in Bob is from Australia, which may perhaps be thought of as special uses.
Directional spatial adpositions can only combine with verbs that involve motion; static prepositions can combine with other verbs as well.
When a static adposition combines with a motion verb, it sometimes takes on a directional meaning. The following sentence can either mean that Bob jumped around in the water, or else that he jumped so that he ended up in the water.
In some languages, directional adpositions govern a different case on their complement than static ones. These are known as casally modulated prepositions. For example, in German, directional adpositions govern accusative while static ones govern dative. Adpositions that are ambiguous between directional and static interpretations govern accusative when they are interpreted as directional, and dative when they are interpreted as static.
Directional adpositions can be further divided into telic ones and atelic ones. To, into and across are telic: they involve movement all the way to the endpoint denoted by their complement. Atelic ones include towards and along. When telic adpositions combine with a motion verb, the result is a telic verb phrase. Atelic adpositions give rise to atelic verb phrases when so combined.
Static adpositions can be further subdivided into projective and non-projective ones. A non-projective static adposition is one whose meaning can be determined by inspecting the meaning of its complement and the meaning of the preposition itself. A projective static adposition requires, in addition, a perspective or point of view. If I say that Bob is behind the rock, you need to know where I am to know on which side of the rock Bob is supposed to be. If I say that your pen is to the left of my book, you also need to know what my point of view is. No such point of view is required in the interpretation of sentences like your pen is on the desk. Projective static prepositions can sometimes take the complement itself as "point of view," if this provides us with certain information. For example, a house normally has a front and a back, so a sentence like the following is actually ambiguous between two readings: one has it that Bob is at the back of the house; the other has it that Bob is on the other side of the house, with respect to the speaker's point of view.
A similar effect can be observed with left of, given that objects that have fronts and backs can also be ascribed lefts and rights. The sentence, My keys are to the left of the phone, can either mean that they are on the speaker's left of the phone, or on the phone's left of the phone.
Particular uses of adpositions can be classified according to the function of the adpositional phrase in the sentence.
Adpositional languages typically single out a particular adposition for the following special functions:
Some languages such as Portuguese, Spanish and Italian divide prepositions into proper and improper. Proper prepositions, also called essential prepositions, are exclusively prepositions. Improper prepositions, also called accidental prepositions, can have other syntactic roles. Greek divides prepositions into proper and improper, but with a different meaning.
There are many similarities in form between adpositions and adverbs. Some adverbs are clearly derived from the fusion of a preposition and its complement, and some prepositions have adverb-like uses with no complement:
It is possible to treat all of these adverbs as intransitive prepositions, as opposed to transitive prepositions, which select a complement (just like transitive vs intransitive verbs). This analysis could also be extended to other adverbs, even those that cannot be used as "ordinary" prepositions with a nominal complement:
A more conservative approach is to say simply that adverbs and adpositional phrases share many common functions.
Phrasal verbs in English are composed of a verb and a "particle" that also looks like an intransitive preposition. The same can be said for the separable verb prefixes found in Dutch and German.
Although these elements have the same lexical form as prepositions, in many cases they do not have relational semantics, and there is no "missing" complement whose identity can be recovered from the context.
The set of adpositions overlaps with the set of subordinating conjunctions (or complementizers):
All of these words can be treated as prepositions if we extend the definition to allow clausal complements. This treatment could be extended further to conjunctions that are never used as ordinary prepositions:
In some languages, the role of adpositions is served by coverbs, words that are lexically verbs, but are generally used to convey the meaning of adpositions.
For instance, whether prepositions exist in Chinese is sometimes considered an open question. Coverbs are often referred to as prepositions because they appear before the noun phrase they modify. However, unlike prepositions, coverbs can sometimes stand alone as main verbs. For instance, in Standard Chinese, dào can be used in a prepositional or a verb sense:
From a functional point of view, adpositions and morphological case markings are similar. Adpositions in one language can correspond precisely to case markings in another language. For example, the agentive noun phrase in the passive construction in English is introduced by the preposition by, while in Russian it is marked by the instrumental case. Sometimes both prepositions and cases can be observed within a single language. For example, the genitive case in German is in many instances interchangeable with a phrase using the preposition von.
Despite this functional similarity, adpositions and case markings are distinct grammatical categories:
It can be difficult to clearly distinguish case markings from adpositions. For example, the post-nominal elements in Japanese and Korean are sometimes called case particles and sometimes postpositions. Sometimes they are analysed as two different groups because they have different characteristics (e.g. ability to combine with focus particles), but in such analysis, it is unclear which words should fall into which group.
Turkish and Finnish have both extensive case-marking and postpositions, and here there is evidence to help distinguish the two:
In these examples, the case markings form a word with their hosts (as shown by vowel harmony, other word-internal effects and agreement of adjectives in Finnish), while the postpositions are independent words.
Some languages, like Sanskrit, use postpositions to emphasize the meaning of the grammatical cases, and eliminate possible ambiguities in the meaning of the phrase. For example: रामेण सह (Rāmeṇa saha, "in company of Rāma"). In this example, "Rāmeṇa" is in the instrumental case, but, as its meaning can be ambiguous,the postposition saha is being used to emphasize the meaning of company.
In Indo-European languages, each case often contains several different endings, some of which may be derived from different roots. An ending is chosen depending on gender, number, whether the word is a noun or a modifier, and other factors.
The choice of preposition (or postposition) in a sentence is often idiomatic, and may depend either on the verb preceding it or on the noun which it governs: it is often not clear from the sense which preposition is appropriate. Different languages and regional dialects often have different conventions. Learning the conventionally preferred word is a matter of exposure to examples. For example, most dialects of American English have "to wait in line", but some have "to wait on line". Because of this, prepositions are often cited as one of the most difficult aspects of a language to learn, for both non-native speakers and native speakers. Where an adposition is required in one language, it may not be in another. In translations, adpositions must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and one may be either supplied or omitted. For instance:
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