Pesky Prepositions

Why, oh, why did I start this blog out with a post about prepositions when I know full well that those pesky little words are constantly setting traps for the unwary? Hubris, I suppose.

Although the point of my last post is still perfectly sound, it appears I goofed with at least one of the sample sentences I gave. @anotherlinguist helpfully pointed out to me on Twitter that in the sentence “The rain came pouring down,” down is actually functioning as an adverb, not a preposition. See, prepositions describe the relationship between two things, and that sentence doesn’t contain a second thing, an object of the preposition. So down is describing how the rain fell, not where it fell. It’s a tricky distinction, but Elizabeth O’Brien (@grammarROCKS) does a good job of breaking it down. I’m convinced of my error, so I’ve replaced that sentence in the post with a better example.

Then, to make things even more confusing, @ArrantPedantry made a reasonable argument that the would-be preposition in “Get out!” is also functioning as an adverb. In this case, I think the object is implied and out is still a preposition, but to avoid confusing readers, I’ve replaced this example in the previous post with a less ambiguous one.

All this ambiguity is itself another excellent reason to try to forget that anyone ever told you not to end a sentence with a preposition. Down, in my sample sentence, is not a preposition at all, but surely many overzealous teachers and editors would mark it as one, because they find the subject as confusing as the writers whose text they’re marking up. And in the other sample, well, if two linguists and a copy editor can’t agree on whether out is a preposition, what hope is there for a third-grader or a writer on a deadline?

Ending a sentence with a preposition is an acceptable, comprehensible part of written and spoken English, and trying to avoid it will make your writing awkward and your brain mushy. Just roll with it.


4 comments on “Pesky Prepositions

  1. Woah! First one to comment (and to think that this is the post’s second day on the web)! Yes!

    I had a good time figuring out the replacements.

    I’d have to pseudo-agree with you on “Get out!” It is technically composed of a verb and a preposition.

    Also, (and this is where I think I’ll fail miserably in explaining myself) the common definition of “get” will require a direct object before it can take an adverb of place, so “out” will not make much sense if we treat it like this: get [something] out [place]. In this sense, it will always act as a preposition.

    On the other hand, could we really consider them as separate units? I don’t think so because the sum of those two words in terms of meaning is more than just the combination of “to gain possession of” + “in a direction away from the inside or center.”

    I’d say that “get out” is a phrasal verb that would be synonymous to “leave,” which is conveniently recognized by M-W.com (and other dictionaries) as such.

    I know that this has caused a chatter on Twitter already, and I missed that, so I’d had to participate here instead.

    In conclusion, yes, let’s just roll with it. :D

  2. […] was that your proofreader had fallen for some grammatical hokum somewhere along the line. But hey, I’ve been mistaken before, and it worried me that I couldn’t think of what fake rule your proofreader might be trying […]

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