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When I studied linguistics 40-some years ago, it was understood that

PP → Prep NP

But I’ve discovered sources that suggest that the class of prepositions is (now?) understood much more broadly.

Consider this source, according to which while is a preposition in the sentence

The doorbell rang while we were eating dinner.

Now, syntactically, that sentence seems to me little different from

The doorbell rang, but we were in no hurry to answer it.

I’d have said that each of these sentences consists of a pair of clauses linked by a conjunction. Of course while and but are performing different semantic functions here: the former establishes a chronological relationship between the meanings of the clauses, whereas the latter establishes a logical one. But beyond that…

Cambridge says that “as, when and while are conjunctions.” So if I’m out of date, then at least I would appear to be in good company.

Anyway, has the world moved on? Do prepositions no longer have objects? And does anyone suppose that the conjunctions harbor a grudge about the reduction in their number?

I know I’m supposed to formulate a single question, but wow!

  • What is the current “officially decreed” concept of a preposition?
  • When did it change?
  • Why?
  • What are the most compelling counter arguments raised by the (presumably reactionary) objectors?
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2 Answers 2

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This broadened conception of a preposition has a long history, but its recent popularity is thanks to its appearance in Huddleston & Pullum's The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002). Essentially, they note the similarities between sentences like the following:

  1. We have lived there ever since.
  2. We have lived there ever since the war.
  3. We have lived there ever since the war started.

Their conclusion is that since is a preposition in all three contexts: in (1) it's used intransitively, with no complement, in (2) it has a noun phrase as its complement, and in (3) it has a content clause as its complement. There are a large number of other parallels between these different uses of since. You can extend this argument to encompass similar "subordinating conjunctions" like because and certain "adverbs" like downstairs and even now.

Your typical English teacher--and your typical dictionary, as you've noted--still holds that since is an adverb in (1), a preposition in (2), and a subordinating conjunction in (3); the traditional terminology remains far more commonly known and widely understood and it remains the analysis familiar to most people. The new terminology is most popular among (some) linguists and other specialists, but there are a large number of theoretical arguments in favor of it and many will advocate that it should be adopted more widely.

Of course, there's no official body to "decree" which definition should be used, e.g. when answering questions on this site. Debates over this tend to lead to wars in comments sections, so I'll leave it at that.

Note: this applies only to "subordinating conjunctions," not to "coordinating conjunctions." So nobody doubts that the "but" in "The doorbell rang, but we were in no hurry to answer it" is a conjunction.

Edit: I should mention one other argument for classifying locative "adverbs" like here as prepositions. Like other prepositions, but unlike adverbs, such words can be used predicatively: we can say "The package is here" and "The package is in the kitchen," but not *"The package is heavily."

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  • Cool. Thanks @alphabet. Aug 19, 2023 at 1:49
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    Thanks also to @DW256 for pointing me to Pullum’s paper, which describes how people as far back as Kirkby in the mid eighteenth century were raising the issues. Aug 19, 2023 at 11:11
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    Note though Pullum’s harsh assessment of most English speakers’ grasp of their own grammar. For instance, he laments of signs that “ordinary members of the public scarcely know enough to distinguish word classes from the things that the words are supposed to denote.” But he titles his next section—a mere four lines later!—“Defining nouns and verbs” when that section isn’t about defining either nouns or verbs at all. It discusses conceptions of the class of nouns and the class of verbs. So a better title would be “Defining noun and verb.” The irony (not to say hypocrisy) is sublime. Aug 19, 2023 at 11:24
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    Many of the misunderstandings that arise in the discussions of Huddleston and Pullum's theory are due to The Cambridge Grammar in the title of their book, which creates an illusion that it is somehow 'official', that it is endorsed by the university as a whole. If it had been sold as 'Huddleston and Pullum's Grammar', it would have been clear that it presents a theory with which reasonable people may disagree.
    – jsw29
    Aug 21, 2023 at 16:35
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    @jsw29 I'm not sure the name is the issue. But some people feel obligated to "correct" anyone who adopts an analysis or set of terminology different from those used by H&P; this attitude is, I think, deeply misguided and counterproductive.
    – alphabet
    Aug 21, 2023 at 19:12
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There is a reasonable argument to support the idea of treating a temporal subordinate (adverbial?) clause as a PP. In the 1960s, the US philosopher Donald Davidson argued that logically events could be treated as logical substantives capable of being 'modified' by (for example) temporal phrases/clauses. The idea was/is that events could the entities just as objects could. Davidson did not go into the grammar of this, but it would have allowed verb phrases to be treated as prepositional phrases.

Skipping the metaphysical, however, the short answer to the question is that, although Pullam has an arguable point, it would be grossly unfair to include the construction as the 'right answer' in a multiple choice grammar test.

Nevertheless, as a theoretician, Pullam surely has the right to suggest this simplification in the attempt to establish a kind of consistency. However, for it to become standard or normal usage you would have to retrain the great majority of English language teachers in anglophone schools and of teachers of English as a foreign language.

It is arguable but but not established. Other authoritative grammars, such as the Oxford English Grammar do not go down that road. Although, to be fair, CGEL was published six years later and so is more recent, that does not necessarily displace the OEG.

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    Oxford Modern English Grammar does "go down" that 100-year-old road that did not start with Geoff Pullum btw, by any means shape or form. And Bas Aarts, it's author, is the inheritor of the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language mantle, as a young colleague of Greenbaum (author of Oxford English Grammar) Leech, Startvik and Quirk, and now Director of the Survey of English Usage himself, as well as Professor of English Linguistics at UCL. Incidentally, if any predecessor of tCGEL is a worthy one, it certainly isn't OMG - as Greenbaum would readily admit- it's aCGEL. Aug 20, 2023 at 20:18
  • @Araucaria. Aarts hedges his bets a little by calling although, because, since,... "conjunctive prepositions" (p156). I'm looking forward to your answer to this question.
    – Shoe
    Aug 21, 2023 at 15:40
  • @Shoe That's not hedging, that's being s consummate diplomat! Notice that a conjunctive preposition is just a preposition that takes declarative finite clauses as complements. As opposed to the gerund-participle and interrogative finite clauses that prepositions already took in so-called traditional grammar. Aug 21, 2023 at 20:11
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Off-topic, but out of curiosity, what's your take on the value of Oxford Modern English Grammar relative to CGEL?
    – alphabet
    Aug 21, 2023 at 20:23

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