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If I you fill in the blanks with prepositions, is it a grammar exercise or a vocabulary exercise, e.g.

He was here ______ the morning.

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Thank you, I'm more interested in their idiomatic meanings than physical and when they're used in fixed phrases. – Peter Sep 3 '14 at 6:38
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Prepositions straddle the boundary between 'lexical words' and 'function' words (see this Wikipedia article).

In 'the box is on the table', 'on' in its locative sense can be seen to have a clear meaning. This central sense is what an introductory lesson on prepositions would literally illustrate.

But in say the prepositional phrase 'on fire', the preposition has assumed a far less tractable meaning; it's now really doing a syntactical job, making an adjectival out of 'fire'. This is a more peripheral usage.

There is a continuum rather than two separate categories; some might call 'She is on the train' an example of a semi-locative / intermediate usage (still a spatial relationship, but not the prototypical sense of 'on').

So, I'd say both grammar and vocabulary (or syntax and semantics).

There is at least one paper on this: “Are English prepositions grammatical or lexical morphemes?” by Lucile Bordet & Denis Jamet. It's downloadable as a pdf.

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I like what you said about intermediate usages; one could say that the O.P.'s example (in the morning) falls into this category. – J.R. Sep 3 '14 at 7:50
Temporal usages are usually (if I'm remembering the articles I've been through correctly) labelled 'central'/'prototypical', but I'd agree with you that they're not as prototypical as spatial ones. John Lawler has discussed the metaphor/s involved (eg the 'container metaphor'). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 3 '14 at 8:41

The type of an exercise is determined by what it's supposed to teach. If you fill in the blank with a preposition, then obviously you know your grammar just fine. So this is a vocabulary exercise, or a collocation exercise, or a word-choice exercise.

Now, if you were tempted to fill it in with not a preposition, and the point of the exercise was to teach you not to do that, that would be a grammar exercise.

It could also be neither a grammar exercise nor a vocabulary exercise, but a calligraphy exercise if what its author wanted of you was practice writing that particular word really nice. Or it could be a talkativeness exercise, if he intended you to try and fill in the blank with as many words as possible, like "all drunk and real damn early in".

But your very premise is that you already know that it's a preposition that goes in there, and all you practise is word choice. So you've pretty much answered your own question.

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Prepositions are vocabulary and grammar. But one should know that in grammars the chapter prepositions is only a basic introduction into the matter. Grammars can't cover prepositions completely, that is the task of dictionaries. As prepositions represent a very difficult and complex area of the vocabulary the best way to study the use of prepositions is to get information in larger dictionaries which try to give a clear survey of the main uses of a preposition, but even big dictionaries can't cover all finesses and overlapping areas.

Actually, there should be special dictionaries for prepositions as they are such a difficult word class. But I have never seen such a thing. I have an old and small booklet -

J. B. Heaton, Prepositions and Adverbial Particles, Longmans, 1965, 160 pages -

and one might say that Heaton has realized that there should be special reference works for prepositions and function words. But it would be a great task for lexicographers to make such things on a standard level.

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