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Preposition: Classification

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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 Vs Complex

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:
  • in spite of, with respect to, except for, by dint of, next to
  • 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:
  • anstelle / an Stelle "instead of", aufgrund / auf Grund "because of", mithilfe / mit Hilfe "by means of", zugunsten / zu Gunsten "in favor of", zuungunsten / zu Ungunsten "to the disadvantage of", zulasten / zu Lasten "at the expense of"
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:
  • It contains a word that cannot be used in any other context: by dint of, in lieu of.
  • The first preposition cannot be replaced: with a view to but not for/without a view to
  • It is impossible to insert an article, or to use a different article: on an/the account of, for the/a sake of
  • The range of possible adjectives is very limited: in great favor of, but not in helpful favor of
  • The number of the noun cannot be changed: by virtue/virtues of
  • It is impossible to use a possessive determiner: in spite of him, not in his spite
  • Complex prepositions develop through the grammaticalization of commonly used free combinations. This is an ongoing process that introduces new prepositions into English.

Classification By Position

The position of an adposition with respect to its complement allows the following subclasses to be defined:
  • A preposition precedes its complement to form a prepositional phrase.
  • ::German: auf dem Tisch, French: sur la table, Polish: na stole "on the table"
  • A postposition follows its complement to form a postpositional phrase.
  • ::Chinese: 桌子上 zhuōzi shàng lit. "table on", Finnish: minun kanssani lit. "my with", Turkish: benimle or "benim ile", Latin: mecum both lit. "me with"

  • A circumposition consists of two or more parts and it is positioned on both sides of the main word. Circumpositions are very common in Pashto and Kurdish. Here are some examples in Northern Kurdish Kurmanji also found in the Kurdish Wiktionary or "Wîkîferheng":
  • : bi ... re "with" : di ... de "in", for things, not places : di ... re "via, through" : ji ... re "for" : ji ... ve "since"
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:
    did you say the guy wanted to sell us the car for? with? In other cases, the complement of the adposition is absent:
  • I'm going to the park. Do you want to come with?
  • French: Il fait trop froid, je ne suis pas habillée pour. "It's too cold, I'm not dressed for the situation."
  • 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:
    . "in my opinion" An ambiposition entlang along. It can be put before or after the noun related to it but with different noun cases attached to it. ::die Straße entlang ::entlang der Straße ::along the road
Another adposition surrounds its complement, called a circumposition:
  • A circumposition has two parts, which surround the complement to form a circumpositional phrase.
  • English: from now on
  • Dutch: naar het einde toe "towards the end", lit. "to the end to"
  • Mandarin: 從 冰箱 裡 cóng bīngxiāng lǐ "from the inside of the refrigerator", lit. "from refrigerator inside"
  • French: à un détail près "except for one detail", lit. "at one detail near"
  • Swedish: för tre timmar sedan "three hours ago", lit. "for three hours since"
  • "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.

  • An inposition is an adposition between constituents of a complex complement.
  • Ambiposition is sometimes used for an adposition that can function as either a preposition or a postposition.
  • Melis 2003 proposes the descriptive term interposition for adpositions in the structures such as the following:
  • word for word, page upon page, French coup sur coup one after another, repeatedly, Russian друг с другом with each other
  • 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.

Classification By Complement

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.
  • noun phrases:
  • .
  • adpositional phrases:
  • .
  • adjectives and adjective phrases:
  • .
  • adverbs or adverb phrases:
  • infinitival or participial verb phrases:
  • .
  • nominal clauses:
  • full sentences see Conjunctions below

Also like verbs, adpositions can appear without a complement; see Adverbs below.

Some adpositions could be described as combining with two complements:
    , we can all come out of hiding again., they'd have to seriously modify the Constitution. 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:
    for revenge to the constitution to their needs from its neighbors after supper beneath the bed

Semantic Classification

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:
  • spatial relations: location inclusion, exclusion, proximity, direction origin, path, endpoint
  • temporal relations
  • comparison: equality, opposition, price, rate
  • content: source, material, subject matter
  • agent
  • instrument, means, manner
  • cause, purpose
  • reference
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, e.g., in the case of phrasal verbs.
  • English: dispense with formalities phrasal verb, listen to my advice often construed as a transitive phrasal verb in contrast to intransitive stand-alone listen, good at mathematics
  • Russian: otvechat' na vopros lit. "answer on the question", obvinenie v obmane "accusation in i.e. of fraud"
  • Spanish: soñar con ganar el título "dream with i.e. about winning the title", consistir en dos grupos "consist in i.e. of two groups"
  • 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.

Subclasses Of Spatial Adpositions

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.
  • Bob went to the store. movement over time
  • A path into the woods. non-temporal path
  • The fog extended from London to Paris. non-temporal path
  • A static adposition normally does not involve movement. Examples of these include at, in, on, beside, behind, under and above.
  • Bob is at the store.
  • 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.
  • Fine: Bob is in his bedroom. in is static
  • Bad: Bob is to his bedroom. to is directional
  • Directional spatial adpositions can only combine with verbs that involve motion; static prepositions can combine with other verbs as well.
  • Fine: Bob is lying down in his bedroom.
  • Bad: Bob is lying down into/from his bedroom.
  • 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.
  • Bob jumped 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.
  • in seinem Zimmer in his-DATIVE room "in his room" static
  • in sein Zimmer in his-ACCUSATIVE room "into his room" directional
  • 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.
  • Bob is behind the house.
  • 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.

Classification By Grammatical Function

Particular uses of adpositions can be classified according to the function of the adpositional phrase in the sentence.
  • Modification
  • adverb-like
  • .
  • adjective-like
  • attributively
  • is not the most relaxing vacation.
  • in the predicate position
  • .
  • Syntactic functions
  • complement
  • :Let's dispense with the formalities.
  • ::Here the words dispense and with complement one another, functioning as a unit to mean forego, and they share the direct object the formalities. The verb dispense would not have this meaning without the word with to complement it.
  • was chosen as the best place to hide the bodies.
Adpositional languages typically single out a particular adposition for the following special functions:
  • marking possession
  • marking the agent in the passive construction
  • marking the beneficiary role in transfer relations

Proper Vs Improper

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.

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