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You Don’t Know From Prepositions

Quick! What kind of word is from?

Bet you said, “Ha! Must be a trap. Better not say preposition.”

We all learned it in grade school: from is a preposition. When I sat down to draft this post, I never intended to overturn this teaching. I set out to write a brief notice that, yes, sentences can end with prepositions. I ended up unlearning some “facts”—laboriously, by way of confusion and resistance—and expanding my perspective. I came to see that prepositions are not necessarily prepositions, that easy labels—who knew?—can obscure deeper truths.

I invite you to join me. Set aside for the moment what you know. Consider the outrageous notion that we can’t call from, by itself, a preposition or anything else. We can’t know what from is until we see what it does. Same goes for over, of, around, and the hundred other words that we have always thought of, automatically, as prepositions. A preposition is a preposition only when it acts as a preposition in a sentence, when it creates a certain kind of relationship between other words.

This thing that we’ve always called a preposition is a verb particle—not a preposition—when it acts as a verb particle, and it’s an adverb—not a preposition and not a verb particle—when it acts as an adverb.

In this post, I hope to leave you with nothing less than the exhilaration of a new way of seeing language. As a bonus, I wrap up with a few guidelines that enable you—within the admittedly narrow realm of this special group of words—to write with more confidence and freedom.

Preposition, Verb Particle, or Adverb?

Behavior defines these three word types.

  • A preposition typically appears immediately before—in pre-position to—a noun phrase. The preposition connects the noun phrase to another word in the sentence. In The fox leapt into the river, the preposition into connects the river back to leapt.  The prepositional phrase into the river modifies the verb leapt. (Some linguists, incidentally, no longer count prepositions among English parts of speech. For grammar lovers, this news ranks up there with the deplanetizing of Pluto.[1])
  • A verb particle combines with a main verb, and sometimes with other particles, to create a multiple-word verb with an idiomatic meaning, a meaning different from that of the individual words. For example, in is a verb particle—not a preposition and not an adverb—in chip in (help). Out is a verb particle in give out (distribute). Out and of are both verb particles in drop out of (quit). From is a verb particle in know from (understand, have a clue about).
  • An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs commonly tell when or where or how something happens. In The couple strolled outside, the adverb outside tells where the couple strolled. Here, outside is neither a preposition (it has no object) nor a verb particle (it contributes to no idiomatic meaning).

The authors of Analyzing English Grammar summarize the distinctions this way: “prepositions have noun or noun phrase objects; verb particles are essential to the meaning of the verb; and adverbs often can be … deleted.”[2]

What kind of word is up in each of the following sentences?

Jack ran up a huge hill.

Jack ran up a huge bill.

When he got to the hill, Jack ran up, turned around, and ran back down.

Let’s zoom in on these.

Jack [ran] up a huge hill.
Up is a preposition because it connects a noun phrase (a huge hill) to another word in the sentence (ran).

Jack [ran up] a huge bill.
Up is a verb particle because it is essential to the meaning of the verb. The words ran and up function as a unit—as a single verb—with an idiomatic meaning: incurred. Ran without up makes no sense; a person can’t run a huge bill.

When he got to the hill, Jack [ran] up, turned around, and ran back down.
Up is an adverb because it tells how Jack ran. Up has no noun or noun-phrase object, so it can’t be a preposition. And up is not essential to the meaning of the verb—ran still means ran without it—so it can’t be a verb particle.

Verb Particles and Phrasal Verbs

Verbs that include verb particles—fight off, come up with, run out of—are called phrasal verbs because they are phrases. Even when separated, the main verb and its particle function as a unit. In Jane took the idea in, the verb is took in.

When I first read the term verb particle, I pictured a plastic model of an atom, a few colored balls held together by sticks. The main verb (chip, give, drop) is the nucleus. Verb particles (in, out, of) are electrons. The whole phrasal verb (chip in, give out, drop out of) is the atom.

English offers up thousands of phrasal verbs, each with its own idiomatic meaning. For example, cut it out has nothing to do with using scissors. Some phrasal verbs have multiple meanings. Check out might mean look at, go to a cashier, exit physically, or exit mentally. Put on might mean don clothes, josh a person, apply makeup, or play recorded music. Phrasal verbs can include nouns too; I especially like the oddly perfect wrap your head around (understand). UsingEnglish.com defines some 2,000 phrasal verbs—a mere sampling—based on 153 main verbs. Get alone spawns 167 phrasal verbs like these: get back, get ahead of, get along with, get over.[3]

We use phrasal verbs all the time. They give our language color and make it endearingly flexible. They also make it maddening to learn. One non-native speaker calls phrasal verbs “English mutant monsters.”[4]

When is a Word “Essential to the Meaning of the Verb”?

The quirkiness of phrasal verbs can make it tough to tell whether you’re looking at a verb particle (essential to the meaning of the verb) or a preposition (not essential to the meaning of the verb), especially when the slippery little word in question precedes a noun (which could be either the object of a preposition or the direct object of the verb).

In the following examples, the slippery little word with must be either a verb particle or a preposition—the only two grammatical possibilities. But which is it? Is with essential to the meaning of the verb, and thus a verb particle? Or is it not essential to the meaning of the verb, and thus a preposition?

Go play with those kids.

Don’t mess with those kids.

Let’s make up with those kids.

This analysis gets tricky.

Go [play] with those kids.

With is not essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete with, the verb play—as in frolic—still pertains to the meaning of the sentence. Play with is not idiomatic; it is not a phrasal verb. So, with is a preposition, not a verb particle.

(Play with would have idiomatic meaning if the sentence were Go play with those ideas. Here, play with means consider. With is essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete with, the verb play—as in frolic—no longer pertains to the meaning of the sentence. So, with is a verb particle, not a preposition.)

Don’t [mess with] those kids.

With is essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete with, the verb mess—as in make messy or eat a meal in a particular place—no longer pertains to the meaning of the sentence. Mess with is idiomatic; it’s a phrasal verb meaning bother. So, with is a verb particle, not a preposition.

Let’s [make up] with those kids.

This example shows a verb particle (up) butted up against a preposition (with). Each needs its own analysis.

  • Up is essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete up, the verb make—as in create or force—no longer pertains to the sentence. Make up is idiomatic; it’s a phrasal verb meaning reconcile. So, up is a verb particle, not a preposition.
  • With is not essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete with, the phrasal verb make up—as in reconcile—still pertains to the meaning of the sentence. So, with is a preposition, not a verb particle.

Is this a hoot or what?

The Context Beyond the Sentence Matters Too

Quick! What kind of word is along in this sentence?

Git along, little dogies.

Along can’t be a preposition because it has no noun object. (The speaker is neither telling someone to “git along the little dogies” nor telling the little dogies to git along something.) So, along must be either an adverb or a verb particle. But which?

In fact, we can’t say. The sentence doesn’t tell us enough. We lack context again, as we did in the beginning (What kind of word is from?). We need to know what the speaker means before we can classify along.

[Git] along, little dogies.
If the speaker wants the little dogies to stop dawdling, along is not essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete along, the verb git—as in mosey—still pertains to the meaning of the sentence. So, along is an adverb, not a verb particle. 

[Git along], little dogies.
If the speaker wants the little dogies to stop squabbling, along is essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete along, the verb git—as in mosey—no longer pertains to the sentence. Git along is idiomatic; it’s a phrasal verb meaning cooperate. So, along is a verb particle, not a preposition.

A Few Guidelines

Why bother with all this brain-taxing analysis? For me, wrapping my head around this stuff is its own reward. “Getting it” has been a rush. “Getting it” has also brought a few guidelines into focus, clarifying certain decisions. Mostly they’re small, but when it comes to writing, “no decision is too small to be worth wrestling with.”[5]  Here then are those guidelines.

USE PHRASAL VERBS—OR DON’T—ON PURPOSE.

When a phrasal verb suggests itself, your first decision is whether to use it. Consider several factors. In their favor, these idiomatic verbs are “natural-sounding” and “lend a relaxed, confident tone,” as Bryan Garner points out. On the other hand, he continues, they increase word count, so “some rhetoricians prefer avoiding them—hence handle instead of deal with, resolve instead of work out.”[6]

Also weighing against phrasal verbs, sometimes, is their informality. Bonnie Trenga, the author of Off-the-Wall Skits with Phrasal Verbs, gives this example: “If you were writing a dissertation on Henry VIII, you might not want to write, ‘The king hung out with all the nobles.’ It would probably be better to write, ‘The king associated with all the nobles.’ If there’s a doubt, use more formal language.”[7]

A summary of all this wisdom amounts to a counsel of perfection: choose terms—phrasal or not—that convey your meaning precisely and tightly, and that hit exactly the right level of diction for every conceivable audience and purpose.

Do I hear a chorus of angels?

PUT SPACES BEFORE VERB PARTICLES.

Nouns: giveaway, hangout.
Verbs: give away, hang out.

PUT SPACES AFTER VERB PARTICLES.

Quick! Sylvia went onto the stage or Sylvia went on to the stage? 

Have you ever wondered when to put a space between on and to? Between in and to? Between up and on? Wonder no more. If you’re looking at a verb particle, put a space after it.

After entering the movie theater, Sylvia [went] onto the stage.

On is not essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete on, the verb went—as in walked—still pertains to the meaning of the sentence. So, on is not a verb particle. It’s part of the preposition onto (no space).

After acting in many movies, Sylvia [went on] to the stage.
On is essential to the meaning of the verb. You know this because when you delete on, the verb went—as in walked—no longer pertains to the meaning of the sentence. Went on is idiomatic; it’s a phrasal verb meaning proceeded. So, on is a verb particle. It’s not part of a preposition. You put a space after it.

AVOID EXTRANEOUS VERB PARTICLES.

Verb particles sometimes crash the party, sneaking in where they don’t belong. Instead of separating things outseparate them. Rather than focus in on something, focus on it. When in doubt about a verb, research it out. I mean, research it. Dictionaries cover thousands of phrasal verbs. Some dictionaries cover nothing but phrasal verbs.

STAY DIALED, DUDE.

Fashionable phrasal verbs often absorb their particles. If you use slang in your writing, despite the risks[8], stay alert to changes. Once upon a time, we were bummed out; these days, we’re bummed. Back in the day, you’d challenge your rivals to bring it on; today, you say bring it. Hipsters don’t deal with problems; they deal. They don’t get psyched up; they get psyched. They don’t walk out on people; they walk. When Trailblazer LaMarcus Aldridge “twines eight in a row from 12 feet”[9], Aldridge is not dialed in; the man is dialed.

END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION IF YOU NEED TO.

The so-called rule against ending a sentence with a preposition has been called a “durable superstition”[10], a “remnant of Latin grammar”[11], and “one of the top ten grammar myths.”[12] At least one editor has seen many a “tangled sentence due to reluctance to end a sentence with a preposition.”[13]

Finally, we arrive at the point that I originally set out to make: feel free to end a sentence with a preposition—but only if you can’t find a better word to end it with.

Now You Know From Prepositions—So What?

What does it matter that you now know from prepositions? Who’s going to notice when you confidently put a space between on and to, or when you freely place with wherever you please? Who will appreciate that you’ve seen through the label “preposition” to deeper linguistic truths? What critic will ever be impressed by such private indicators of your growing mastery over your craft? The only critic with the power to hold you back.

[1] Pluto analogy courtesy of my grammar-loving sister. The recategorization of traditional parts of speech requires a new vocabulary, which no footnote can do justice to. For a consciousness-altering treatment of this topic, see Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007). I’m grateful to Drs. Klammer, Schulz, and Della Volpe for their feedback on the content of this post.

[2] Klammer, Schulz, and Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar,117–123.

[3] “Phrasal Verb Quizzes – By Verb,” UsingEnglish.com, July 25, 2011, http://www.usingenglish.com/reference/phrasal-verbs/quizzes-verbs.html.

[4] Bonnie Trenga, “Phrasal Verbs,” Grammar Girl blog, July 4, 2008, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/phrasal-verbs.aspx.

[5] William Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990), xiii.

[6] Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 628–629.

[7] Trenga, “Phrasal Verbs.”

[8] Some style guides advise avoiding slang altogether, but you might want to use it if it suits your audience and purpose. Consider whether the advantages of immediacy and color outweigh the risks of alienating some readers and sacrificing the long-term relevance of your writing. When you nail it, slang, like other “ephemeragy,” is “one of the most stimulating devices in the writer’s toolbox.” Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (New York: Random House, 2007), 234–235.

[9] Example courtesy of my husband, whose encouragement and editorial suggestions have helped shape this whole post.

[10] Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English: Revised and Updated (New York: Facts On File, 1991), 386.

[11] Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 654.

[12] Mignon Fogarty, “Ending a Sentence With a Preposition,” Grammar Girl blog, March 31, 2011, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ending-prepositions.aspx.

[13] Shauna Roberts, “Phrasal verbs: Cool, but often misused,” Shauna Roberts’ For Love Of Words blog, March 26, 2008, http://shaunaroberts.blogspot.com/2008/03/phrasal-verbs-cool-but-often-misused.html.

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  1. Wendy Hood
    February 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Wow, you put a huge amount of work into this. Prepositions that don’t function as prepositions clear up a lot of questions I’ve had over the years that I just shrugged off. But now those sentences make sense. I hate that my nice, neat list of prepositions has to be re-thought, but since all of life gets more complicated with each passing year, why should grammar be allowed to stay in nice, neat lists?

    • February 19, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      Wendy, I used to shrug those question off too. Now I look those questions in the eye and say, “Bring it.” Thanks for your input along the way, and thanks for the comment.

  2. Laurie
    February 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    OK…….as I read this post, I find my posture leaning forward toward the monitor, making sure I am reading EVERY word. I am now lost between prepositions, adverbs, verbs and verb particles and then when I read the word idiomatic (of which I had to get the dictionary out), I kept thinking you were calling me an idiot! I am happy to report that in previous years, I tried my darnedest not to end a sentence with a preposition. Apparently when I did, it was actually a verb particle, maybe. At any rate, it was a great read as I can see the post as either a stand up comedy routine or a super speech for Toastmasters! Imagine the flying around the stage keeping all those words separate…… until they aren’t. I was bummed (out) but now I’m dialed (in), so bring (do I need to use the word it) lol 🙂

    • February 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm

      Laurie, Glad you found this post useful and amusing. Thanks for letting me know. I can picture you up there on the stage flinging verb particles with abandon.

  3. September 4, 2013 at 9:04 am

    When did “off of” come into use? Why do some have to save “get off of the couch” when “get off the couch” is adequate?

    • September 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      Ray, That little word “of” creeps in all sorts of places. Thanks to Garner’s Modern American Usage, I’ve recently come to see “of” as a flag for flabby writing. It surprises me how often editing out “of” (either by simply deleting it or by recasting the sentence) makes writing better.

      By the way, this post is on my old blog. I’ve imported all posts–and added new ones–to my new blog, which you can find at http:/howtowriteeverything.com.

      Thanks for your comment!

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