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Should we always worry about what precedes a preposition?

Many times we come across people concerned with what preposition comes after a certain word.

A preposition's raison d'être is qualifying what typically follows it, not add to what precedes it.

The Oxford Dict. a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in ‘the man on the platform’, ‘she arrived after dinner’, ‘what did you do it for?’.

merriam-webster : a function word that typically combines with a noun phrase to form a phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication

reference.com used before nouns, pronouns, or other substantives to form phrases functioning as modifiers of verbs, nouns, or adjectives, and that typically express a spatial, temporal, or other relationship, as in, on, by, to, since.

Does the selection of the right preposition depend also upon what is said before it?

Right here on englishSE,
what preposition should one use with redundant
which one is more appropriate to use send you or send to you
proficient in at with what is the correct usage
what preposition should I use here written of me or written about me
which preposition should I use here thinking of or thinking about

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Voting to close as "not a real question". It's too broad. –  FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 18:00
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@FumbleFingers: JSB's answer shows how even a seemingly broad question can have a great and informative answer. –  Cerberus Jan 16 '12 at 18:36
    
@Cerberus: I take your point in that it's a nice outline of the "right-branching" nature of English. But I still don't think the question is a good fit for ELU. –  FumbleFingers Jan 16 '12 at 18:44
    
@FumbleFingers: My duty to clarify. In the absence of a broad guideline, we mostly do not even know where to begin on most of the common issues. Many useful and enlightening pointers are emerging from the answers. So, let everyone benefit, along with me, from this. –  Kris Jan 17 '12 at 4:16
    
@Kris: np. This isn't an issue where I'd be at pains to convince others to share my view - it's one where I think the proper way forward is to let each user vote according to how they feel. No-one else has voted with me, so your question looks pretty safe from closure. But it's worth noting that we're not seeing many votes for either question or answers. –  FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 5:42

5 Answers 5

You have understood one thing correctly: a preposition is combined with what follows it to form a prepositional phrase, and they form a single constituent in the sentence. Generally speaking, words in English govern (ie. control or specify) the words that come after them. In linguistics, we say that English is right-branching, meaning that new syntactic elements come after (to the right of, in writing) the elements that govern them.

Note that there are exceptions, such as adjectives, which precede the nouns that govern them. English is not exclusively right-branching, but it is predominantly right-branching.

But what does this have to do with prepositions? Well, just as a preposition governs the noun phrase that comes to its right, the preposition itself is governed by something to its left. And in many cases, that thing is a verb. English is full of idiomatic combinations of verb + preposition, where the verb requires a specific preposition to follow it, and anything else is an error. To take some obvious examples cribbed from other answers:

I converse with you. [Not to/at/of you]

They rely on the bus. [Not with/to/at the bus]

These combinations are highly idiomatic, meaning that the correct choice of preposition cannot be predicted simply by knowing the general meaning of the words involved. So the people who ask about what preposition follows a certain word are asking a reasonable and intelligent question. The choice of preposition very, very often depends on what came before it.

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I don't really have an "answer" so much as some observations. It's useful in this case, I think, to consider a couple things: First, in English nearly all prepositions can also be used adverbially (as a prepositional adverb). Second, the combination of a verb + prepositional adverb can often form a phrasal verb. The phrasal verbs have a chunk of meaning that's different from the bare verb.

Some examples: you might analyze a sentence like We look after our children as either

1 We look (after (our children)) S - V - PP

or

2 We (look after) (our children) S - Phrasal V - Obj

That is, "look after" is a phrasal verb with a given meaning ("to supervise"). But the sentence can alternatively be viewed as having a prepositional phrase "after the children". It's almost ambiguous. We certainly can't say *We look our children after.

Now compare the following cases which look parallel on the surface:

3 I gave up the keys / I gave the keys up

vs.

4 I walked up the stairs / *I walked the stairs up

In 3, we can use either form with equivalent meaning. So the "up" must not be a preposition, since it can be moved after "the keys". Give up is indeed a phrasal verb meaning "relinquish". But in 4 we don't have that freedom; the "up" must be part of a PP with "the stairs". Walked up is not a phrasal verb, and is just "walked" + "up".

So in short you've got at least 3 cases:

a I gave up the keys / I gave the keys up Phrasal verb, separable parts

b I looked after the children / *I looked the children after Phrasal verb, inseparable parts

c I walked up the stairs / *I walked the stairs up Not a phrasal verb, just V+PP

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1  
This interesting take brings a new perspective, or at least a definite clarity to any perspective. There are indeed answers to some of the issues, in this observation. –  Kris Jan 26 '12 at 10:23
    
I'm glad you found my answer helpful, Kris. –  Mark Beadles Jan 31 '12 at 15:44

The answer is yes. In some cases the correct preposition is determined by the word that follows it: on Monday, in the morning, at Easter, etc. In other cases the correct preposition is determined by the word that precedes it and with which it forms a phrase: interested in (adjectival), to rely on (verbal), remedy for (noun), etc.

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For my question, collocations are in scope, prepositional phrases are not. –  Kris Jan 16 '12 at 12:25

Absolutely, it does. Many nouns and verbs "license" certain types of complements. Often these are preposition phrases (PPs), but not any PP will do. With listen, for example, you can have listen [to something] or listen [for something], but listen [about something] is very unlikely. You have a conversation [with somebody], not to them or at them. In the examples, the square brackets enclose the PP headed by the preposition therein.

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I've edited to show the PPs more clearly. –  Brett Reynolds Jan 17 '12 at 2:59

No, we should not worry.

You ask "what should precede a preposition?" as if there were some rule that says for example, that prepositions that indicate direction should follow a verb involving motion. Any such rules would be arbitrary at best. At worst, they would be so convoluted (to avoid the inevitable exceptions because, as JSB said, it's a question of idiom) as to be useless.

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+1 for the confident and pointed answer. Yes, I indeed meant "as if there were some rule", or a set of rigid guidelines, or something of that nature. Turns out, (at least looks like, I am not as confident as either JeffSahol or @Brett Reynolds) from the various answers, that no such prescription can be made. –  Kris Jan 27 '12 at 13:35
    
Confident but I'm not sure you're thinking of the same 'worry' as the rest of us. I think the OP means by 'worry' that if the choice of preposition depends on the context of what comes before as opposed to what comes after and to that the answer is unequivocally, yes, it can depend before and after. –  Mitch Jan 27 '12 at 15:31

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