At 2-0 down with ten minutes left, you have to go for broke.

This is a structure at odds with what most learners know. Prepositions take nominals as objects, but here, what's the supposed object of the preposition?

I'm raising this question because I find this 'at' cannot fit with the rest of the sentence in a grammatical analysis. "Down" is like an adjective or adverb, and "2-4" is a measure of how 'down' a sports team is, like 'two years' in "He is two years old". But then 'at' does not fit!

I've seen such sentences as "Barcelona is 2-0 down with 10 men on the field" without "at", so I was wondering if "at" is necessary at all. If you think "at" is necessary in the original, would you also say it is necessary in "the bird is flying at 200 feet high"? This phrase parallels the first in that both involve a subject complement (high and down respectively) and a measure term of that attribute (200 feet and 2-0 respectively).

Here is another example:

He is 6 feet tall.

No preposition is needed here, so why is 'at' needed in the original?

  • The omission of certain joining words is a common "tell" for a non-native English speaker. So, as the result is awkward, and inelegant, no, you can't leave it out in your original sentence. Your comment is different. In some situations, terse or abbreviated speech is common, such as when "live blogging", or sports color commentary. In spoken english, such terseness is awkward.
    – Warren P
    Jun 24, 2014 at 17:46
  • It will not be grammatical without the "at". You can re-arrange the sentence to read "Down 2-0 with 10 minutes left, you have to go for broke!" which is still sportscaster-ish and choppy but understandable. Jun 24, 2014 at 18:11
  • You might clarify the sentence by saying something like this: "When you're down 2-0 with only ten minutes left, you have to go for broke." Jun 24, 2014 at 18:13
  • 1
    It depends on the context. If it's the announcer on the radio speaking, and this is part of an 80-minute play-by-play, I can see where this sentiment could simply be elided: 2-0 down... less than 10 minutes to play... Costa Rica will have to throw caution to the wind now. No "at" required.
    – J.R.
    Jun 24, 2014 at 18:35
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    @Tristanr The construction you use is what I would say is the underlying construction, before the at rephrasing. You cannot just remove at from the example giving without making it at least borderline ungrammatical (“2–0 down with ten minutes to go, you have to go for broke”?), or at least without changing the meaning; and in some cases, it becomes completely ungrammatical: “460 hp, the BlahCar has the most powerful engine for a sedan in the world” vs. “At 460 hp, the BlahCar has…”. The former here is entirely ungrammatical. (See also my answer below.) Jun 26, 2014 at 12:20

2 Answers 2


The object of at here is “2–0 down with ten minutes left”. It is a perfectly normal preposition, structurally speaking.

Semantically, what at does here is turn a basically copular sentence (X is Y), where the predicate (Y) is some kind of statistic that describes or relates to the subject (X), into an adverbial element that expresses a state or condition that forms the causal background for the main clause that follows.

In plainer terms, you can turn this at Y phrase into a subordinate clause by using “Because/when/as/since X is/has Y”. This pattern does not only occur with sports results, but also in other similar cases:

At 2–0 down with ten minutes to go, you have to go for broke. = When you are 2–0 down with ten minutes to go, you have to go for broke.
At 6’7, he towers over most of his colleagues. = Because he is 6’7 (tall), he towers over most of his colleagues.
At nearly 200,000 employees, MegaCorp is one of the biggest companies in the country = As they have nearly 200,000 employees, MegaCorp is one of the biggest companies in the country.

The last example, where the thing being described with at is a thing owned, rather than a descriptive attribute, you can also use with to much the same effect:

With nearly 200,000 employees, MegaCorp is one of the biggest companies in the country.

Note that the at rephrasing is only possible when the predicate (Y) is some kind of statistic-like attribute of the subject. There has to be something number-like about it (if not an actual number, then at least something like “half” or “two thirds”). So you cannot say:

*At a good friend, people always come to him for advice. = Since he is a good friend, people always come to him for advice.

The since version is perfectly fine, but the at rephrasing is completely ungrammatical and makes no semantic sense. It sounds like people come to him for advice while he is visiting a good friend’s house or something like that.

  • Thank you for the input. Do you think prepositions can take adverbials or adjectival expressions as objects?
    – Apollyon
    Jun 26, 2014 at 14:11
  • In some cases, yes. “From outside” is fine, as is “go for broke” (which I would consider adjectival). Jun 26, 2014 at 15:47

At is an adverb of position here, similar to Copenhagen is at the boundary between the Baltic and the North Sea. Note that though Copenhagen is the boundary between the Baltic and the North Sea is also grammatical, it does not have the same meaning; it means that the boundary is only to be found in the city.

And such 'positional metaphors' are extremely common; you could equally say At six feet tall, Obama is the tallest President since Lincoln, though you can't say * Obama is at six feet tall any more than you can say * Copenhagen is at the capital of Denmark.

  • I don’t think the Copenhagen example is the same thing at all. That is just a simple, straightforward preposition inside a (main) clause, no different from “Copenhagen is in Denmark” or “The book is on the table”. This particular use of at is much more limited in scope, has a specific semantic connotation, and mandatorily stands outside the main clause. And at is a preposition in both cases; not an adverb. The only (pseudo-)adverbial use of at I can think of is, “Where you at?”. Jun 26, 2014 at 12:23
  • @Janus: I agree it isn't the same construction; but it is visibly similar, which is why I used the word. At the boundary between two seas, Copenhagen has the best of both worlds would be the precise parallel; I thought the similarity might be helpful to OP. Jun 26, 2014 at 12:27

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