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PREPOSITION One of the traditional PARTS OF SPEECH into which words are classified. It is a closed class, in that few new prepositions ever enter a language.

Kinds of preposition

(1) Simple preposition. Traditionally, the preposition proper: one- or two-syllable words, such as at, from, through, without. Many such words, however, also have adverbial roles: up is prepositional in They took the boxes up the stairs, adverbial in They picked the boxes up/They picked up the boxes. (2) Compound preposition. Two prepositions used together as one: in and to as into. Such forms are primarily conventions of writing and print and may vary according to the kind of English: BrE generally has on to and AmE onto. Forms like into, on to/onto, and out of are all compounds in speech, because of their rhythm and stress: the first preposition is stressed (INto), and the second is usually reduced. This point is reflected in the non-standard spelling of out of (Will ya get outa here?), where a stands for of reduced to schwa. (3) Complex preposition. A two- or three-word phrase that functions in the same way as a simple preposition: according to, as in According to John, they are coming tomorrow; as well as, as in We're going as well as John; except for, as in They did everything, except for some work we'll finish tomorrow; in favour of, as in They voted in favour of the local candidate.

Prepositions and complements

Unlike such major word classes as verbs and nouns, which have a more independent status, prepositions do not stand alone but need a complement. Typically, this is a noun or pronoun (dawn in at dawn, you in after you) but can be other parts of speech (then in by then, short in in short). Prepositions can also be followed by an -ing clause (after of in A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather) or by a wh-clause (For what we are about to receive …). They are not normally followed by that-clauses, although apparent exceptions are clauses introduced by complex conjunctions: in that, as in The box was difficult to find, in that nobody knew where to look; except that, as in I wouldn't have gone, except that I'd promised. Prepositions are not followed by to-infinitives, and there is a distinction between preposition to (as in *We look forward to seeing you/to your visit, not We look forward to see you) and the to particle plus an infinitive (We hope to see you soon, not *We hope to seeing you soon).


In terms of meaning, prepositions range through various relationships: (1) Space and time, many being used for both: at in They met at Heathrow Airport at six o'clock. (2) Cause and purpose: for in She did it for reasons of her own. (3) Agent and instrument: by in work done by an assistant; with in opened with a knife. (4) The versatile of: possessive (a friend of mine, the lid of the box); assigning origin (of royal descent); indicating creation (the works of Shakespeare); referring to depiction (a picture of Loch Fyne in winter); indicating a subject of conversation (telling them of his travels); stating source and manufacture (made of cotton). (5) There are also many figurative meanings, such as the zeugma of He left in a rage and a taxi. (6) Normally, when the same preposition governs two consecutive phrases and has the same signification in both, it does not need to be repeated (She works in London and Glasgow), but on occasion, repetition is essential for the sake of clarity: They lived in hope in Edinburgh (because the significations are different: not *They lived in hope and Edinburgh).

Usage: the ends of sentences

Because, in etymological terms, preposition means ‘placing before’, and Greek and Latin prepositions precede their complement, the classical prescriptive rule emerged for standard English that sentences should not end with a preposition. However, although English prepositions often do precede their complement, there are structures in which this is impossible (What did you say that for?; What are you getting at?) and some which have no grammatical complement (The bed hadn't been slept in; It hardly bears thinking about; He's nothing to look at). Traditionally, such usages have been described as more or less ungrammatical, often with the result that alternatives have been preferred or recommended (Why did you say that? instead of What did you say that for?). The resultant insecurity sometimes produces stilted inversions like To whom do you think you are talking? for Who do you think you're talking to? One such manoeuvre in a government report is said to have led Winston Churchill to make his famous marginal comment: This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put (‘bloody nonsense’ often being changed to ‘English’ in quotations). With relative clauses, there are usually two positions for a preposition, the end position being less formal: This is the house in which she lived as against This is the house (that) she lived in. In using such constructions, both native and non-native speakers of English sometimes either forget the preposition (He is the person you have to give it, forgetting to) or repeat it (He is the person to whom you have to give it to).

Usage: prepositions and other parts of speech

Prepositions overlap with other parts of speech, especially ADVERBS and conjunctions. The grammatical classification of an item therefore often depends on use in context: in the sentence Jack and Jill went up the hill, up is a preposition, but in They climbed up (and up), it is an adverb. Such adverbs are sometimes called prepositional adverbs, sometimes adverbial particles. In other instances, there are related prepositional and adverbial forms. In standard English in England, out is adverbial only (I opened the window and looked out), the related prepositional form being out of (I looked out of the window). However, in AmE and ScoE, out is both adverbial and prepositional (I looked out the window). Near (to) and close (to) function like prepositions, but are like adjectives and adverbs in having comparative and superlative forms, and can be modified by an intensifier: He sat nearer (to) the fire/very near the fire. Other prepositions overlap with conjunctions. The distinction is again one of usage and function: We waited until she arrived (conjunction plus clause), We waited until her arrival (preposition plus noun phrase). Some words are conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs: since in We haven't heard from him since he left (conjunction): We haven't heard since January (preposition); We haven't heard since (adverb). At times, the distinction between preposition and conjunction is not easy to make and may lead to controversy, as with as and than. Depending on whether they are seen as conjunctions (needing subject pronouns) or prepositions (able to take object pronouns), in such comparisons as I'm not as rich as she/her and He's taller than I/me the first option may be viewed as correct (but stilted), the second as usual (but sometimes stigmatized).

Usage: like

Some people, regarding like as a preposition (Do it like this), object strongly to its use as a conjunction, as in Do it like I told you, rather than Do it the way I told you; Like he said, it's good for you, rather than As he said, …; It's like he wanted to get away, as opposed to It's as if/though he wanted to get away. These uses are, however, widespread. There are also some prepositions that introduce non-finite clauses but are never conjunctions, as with on in On seeing us, he rushed away without saying a word.

Marginal prepositions

These are words that have some of the characteristics of prepositions but also strong affinities with other word classes. They include some -ing and -ed forms which also have verbal use: considering (as in Considering all the trouble he has caused, he should …), following, regarding, given, granted. There are also such hard-to-classify words as bar (as in all of them bar one), worth (as in It's worth much more), and minus and plus (as in minus four, plus ten). But and except as prepositions can be followed not only by noun phrases (There's nobody here but/except me) but also by a bare infinitive (They do nothing but complain).

The prepositional phrase

This is a preposition and its complement together: in the house; near the end. Such a unit functions in different ways in a sentence: it can follow a noun in a noun phrase (‘the man in the white suit’); it can follow particular verbs and adjectives (‘Come and look at my etchings’, ‘Are you fond of animals?’); and it can function as an adverbial (‘Put that thing on the floor’). This versatility sometimes leads to absurdity, when a prepositional phrase meant to have one function is misplaced and can be understood in another: Staff are requested not to eat anything outside the canteen except for the duty telephone operator. See next entries, and PHRASAL VERB.

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prep·o·si·tion / ˌprepəˈzishən/ • n. Gram. a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “what did you do it for?” DERIVATIVES: prep·o·si·tion·al / -shənl/ adj. prep·o·si·tion·al·ly / -shənl-ē/ adv.

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preposition Linguistic category or part of speech that shows the relationship (such as position or direction) between its complement and some other word in the sentence. In the English phrase, “The book on the table”, the word on specifies the relationship between the word book and the prepositional complement table.

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preposition, in English, the part of speech embracing a small number of words used before nouns and pronouns to connect them to the preceding material, e.g., of, in, and about. Prepositions are a class that is typical of the structure of Indo-European languages, but similar classes are found in some other languages.

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preposition XIV. — L. præpositiō, -ōn- putting before, preposition, f. præpōnere; see PRE- POSITION.