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Conjunctions are usually defined as words that join words, clauses or sentences together. Prepositions are defined as expressing relations between parts of a sentence.

However, by expressing relations prepositions also join parts.
On the other hand, most conjunctions do in fact also express a relation. The only one that seemingly doesn't is and, although "being in a group" is also an information... just that we see it as the default. It can't be argued though that "but" does indeed express something quite different than "and" in the following example.

Thomas calls Maria and/but he is in a hurry.

So... with conjunctions also relating and prepositions also joining... what is the difference?

Is there a definition that clearly excludes the other group without naming specific words?

I have searched the web quite a it but all I could find was stuff like this

"The FANBOYS are conjunctions, the others are prepositions"

This is not what I am looking for. I want a definition that leads to those 2 groups.

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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The way young children are introduced to prepositions (including multi-word examples) is by being shown pictures illustrating static spatial (locative) relationships ('the box is beside / under / in front of / next to / on top of / on the left of / near (to) ... the table). This is a semantic treatment. Directional relationships come next, then temporal. Non space/time, including the slightly- and highly-idiomatic, usages of prepositions are introduced later, with a necessary re-emphasis on syntactic properties. Prepositions are neither wholly functional nor wholly lexical words, when considered in all their usages.

In Grammar: A Student's Guide, Hurford cites some 'intercategorial polysemes' which nicely illustrate the differences between 'subordinating conjunctions' ('subordinators' may be a more useful term) and prepositions.

Other sources such as

show analyses of prepositions and their use.

The coordinator class is defined purely in terms of syntactic function:

'Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance.' (Wikipedia) ('Importance' in this sense means one can't have (3) here: (1) 'bacon and eggs is on the menu' (2) 'I like gammon and Jill likes pineapple' (3) 'bacon and Jill likes pineapple'.

'Position in the syntactic hierarchy' is probably a better term.

But if you look at the uses of prepositions Cowan cites, you'll find (I think) they 'relate' structures of unequal syntactic 'importance'.

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As far as subordinating conjunctions are concerned it is pretty clear to me. They can be defined as linking a subordinate clause whereas preps link entities. My problem is mainly with the coordinating conjunctions. Do I understand correctly that you are suggesting that there is no definition for prepositions that excludes conjunctions and that doesn't involve listing them in some way? –  Emanuel Aug 29 '13 at 13:49
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Coordinators are defined purely functionally: 'Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance.' (Wikipedia) ('Importance' in this sense means one can't have (3) here: (1) 'bacon and eggs is on the menu' (2) 'I like gammon and Jill likes pineapple' (3) 'bacon and Jill likes pineapple'. If you look at the uses of prepositions Cowan cites, you'll find (I think) they 'relate' structures of unequal syntactic 'importance'. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 29 '13 at 14:20
    
ok, that actually makes total sense to me... I think you're right about the unequal idea of prepositions. Thank you. If you add that to your answer I'll mark it as correct –  Emanuel Aug 29 '13 at 16:42
    
Provided you have good tests for semantic importance. Imported ones, by choice. –  John Lawler Aug 29 '13 at 21:57
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