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I was informed earlier today that the word ago is actually a postposition and the only one of its kind in English. Is this correct? If so, why do dictionaries not use this classification and prefer to label it an adverb instead?

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We don’t have many left-branching forms in English, but the productive -wards suffix can also be seen as an enclitic postposition. –  tchrist Nov 14 '12 at 14:24
Umm. What use is a linguistic classification category that has only one member? –  FumbleFingers Nov 14 '12 at 14:25
David Crystal has a helpful blog post on this question: link –  Berthilde Nov 14 '12 at 14:30
@FumbleFingers And yet later is classed as an adverb in three weeks later. –  tchrist Nov 14 '12 at 14:48
@tchrist: I thought we'd established long ago that "adverb" is often just a general-purpose "bucket category" for people who insist every (specific usage of a) word must fall into some particular category/"part of speech". –  FumbleFingers Nov 14 '12 at 15:07
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Some sources do list ago as English's sole postposition, but there are actually quite a few other words that pattern the same way:

  • hence: five weeks hence

and the following words, and others, have senses where they follow this usage, although otherwise they are prepositions and/or adjectives:

  • through: the whole day through
  • (a)round: the world around
  • away: ten miles away
  • wide: four feet wide
  • long: ten feet long
  • high: eight miles high

It's interesting that these all seem to result in phrases that act as adverbs of temporal or spacial extent.

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I'd have thought there are many more contexts where other "prepositions" can be "postpositioned". I see nothing unusual in "ten miles off", "ten miles out", "six inches in", for example. –  FumbleFingers Nov 14 '12 at 14:38
Consider adverbial late or later: It arrived a day late and a mile short. Just two weeks later, everything fell apart. –  tchrist Nov 14 '12 at 14:49
@coleopterist No, enclitic -wards is also used only in that fashion. –  tchrist Nov 14 '12 at 15:00
@tchrist: Assuming I understand what you mean by enclitic there, does not the same apply to, for example, "repeat {something} parrot-fashion"? Or "walk crab-wise"? –  FumbleFingers Nov 14 '12 at 15:22
@FumbleFingers But -fashion and -wise are run-of-the-mill “mannerly” left-branching affixes like -ly, whereas -wards is a left-branching directional affix. An important difference between a bound morpheme and an unbound one is that the clitic does not distribute across the entire phrase, whereas the free-standing adpositions do. In both “Just three years ago” and “over/during/for the last three years”, the freestander applies itself to the whole phrase, but if you are inclined Queenwards, the -wards applies only to the Queen itself — unless you have suspension hyphens. –  tchrist Nov 14 '12 at 15:33
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