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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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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 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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Prepositions are a class of words. The prefix pre- refers to the fact that in languages such as English prepositions occur before their complements — or, as ESL writers and old-fashioned grammars like to say, before their objects:

  • in the park

  • like a hurricane

Typically prepositions take nouns or noun phrases as complements. In the examples above, the park and a hurricane are the complements of the prepositions in and like.

Modern grammar, however, recognises that prepositions can take many different types of complement, or may take none at all. In the following examples we see prepositions which are taking different types of complement:

  • Let’s meet before the concert starts.
  • Let’s meet after the concert.
  • Take it out of the box.
  • I’ve never seen this before.

The first is taking a clause, the second a noun phrase, the third another prepositional phrase and the last has no complement. Previously, these prepositions had been thought to be different types of word in each case (adverbs, subordinating conjunctions, complex prepositions), but many straightforward tests show this is not so (cf. Huddleston and Pullum, 2002, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language).

Right, so back to words ago and away. These prepositions do not take nouns as complements or as objects. This is easier to show with the preposition away. Consider the phrase:

  • forty miles away.

It is very tempting to imagine here that forty miles is the complement of away, but it is not! Consider the phrase:

  • forty miles away from Edinburgh.

Here the complement of away is the preposition phrase from Edinburgh.

If we think about it carefully, the phrase forty miles is modifying the meaning of away; it is not one of the two things that the preposition is showing a relationship between (the two things are: Edinburgh and the place or event that Edinburgh was far from).

Typically, prepositions usually show a relationship between two entities. These entities may be objects, events, times, people or ideas. The thing we are already talking about is usually already referred to in the sentence. The entity we are relating it to is usually the complement or occurs within the complement phrase.

However, this isn’t always the case. With prepositions such as inside the second entity is not always expressed, we mentally reconstruct it:

  • I'll see you inside (the cafe).

With the prepositions away and ago the second entity is the place or time we have previously been thinking about: often here or now. As with inside, these entities are usually not expressed in the sentence. The phrases that modify these prepositions do not function syntactically or semantically as the objects of the prepositions but as their modifiers. So infact away and ago are not actually postpositions, unlike those prepositions which in many other languages come after their complements.

However, on the other hand, there is a strong case that in the phrases the world around and the whole day through, that around and through are indeed occurring after their complements, and so could viably be termed ‘postpositions’.

In answer to the problem of why dictionaries do not usually refer to those prepositions which do not take nouns as prepositions - it is because they have so far ignored all of the advances that have been made in modern English grammar! For a good introduction into prepositions, I recommend Bas Aarts, 2011, Oxford Modern English Grammar, which is clear and easy to understand.

I hope this is helpful!

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This needs paragraphs. A wall of text like this is very hard to read online. I'm tempted to do it myself and add italics where necessary. –  Mari-Lou A May 17 at 18:44
@Mari-LouA The main problem is that this user does not understand that hitting return here does not trigger a paragraph break. The secondary problem is the lack of italics and other niceties. The tertiary problem is that some of the would-be paragraphs are still too long, and need some restructuring. I have attempted to remedy these ills as well as possible without rewriting anything. Mostly they just need to learn that a return is not a paragraph marker: a blank line is, which needs two returns, not one. –  tchrist May 17 at 19:08
A good post! :) -- Though, since you mentioned the 2002 CGEL, you might like to know that they analyze "ago" as a preposition--due to that it takes a complement (which happens to be located before it)--pages 632, 697. E.g. "She died [ten years ago]." –  F.E. May 18 at 18:39
What is unhelpful is the implication that there is now a consensus amongst grammarians. 'as ... old-fashioned grammars like to say' BUT 'Modern grammar, however, recognises that ...'. Cappelle refutes the claim that 'many straightforward tests show this [ie that 'these words are all prepositions'] is not so': '... the proved falsity of the claim [that] some particles, namely directional ones, are just [types] of prepositions'. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 at 15:11
@EdwinAshworth But your doing that weird thing where you're analysing a part of speech by it's complements. Imagine doing that with a verb!! "This one's a verb because it has an NP as complement. This one's not because it takes a preposition, this one's not because it takes an ing verb form, this one's not because it takes a bare finite clause, this one isn't it takes a non-finite clause with for, this one isn't because it takes one with to. This one definitely isn't a verb it doesn't even have a complement!" Nobody on this side said that prepositions have to have nouns as complements! –  Araucaria Jun 5 at 13:15
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"ago" reminds me of German "vergangen" (passed by). The German question and answer might be" Wie lange ist das her? -- 20 Jahre sind vergangen.

In English this might be: When was it? -- 20 years have gone by.

Etymonline has old forms agan/agone (departed, passed away).

"agone" was shortened to ago. This explains why ago is placed after the time indiction. It is still the structure of an old sentence like: Twenty years have/are agone". The new function word ago has the function of a preposition as in German vor 20 Jahren, but it is placed after the indication of the time span. And now dictionaries have the problem of labelling the word class. Inventing a new term for this special word class? Not very useful as FumbleFingers says. Etymonline says it is an adjective. Really?? There are other labels which are of no great value. The best thing is to understand the origin of this word then the word class is of minor importance.

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