Thursday, 16 April 2009

On postpositions

A correspondent writes to ask if English has postpositions - by which she means prepositions which follow the noun. As so often in linguistics, the answer is 'it all depends on how you analyse things'.

English plainly doesn't have postpositions in the strict sense, i.e. an item which governs a noun phrase and obligatorily occurs after the noun phrase. In English we say 'in the house' and never 'the house in'. In a postpositional language, people would say 'the house in' and not 'in the house'. Turkish, Finnish, Hindi, Korean, Hungarian, and many other languages have postpositions like this.

English does very occasionally allow a preposition to follow the noun phrase. My correspondent mentions notwithstanding, as in:

these considerations notwithstanding

which is stylistically a more legalistic phrasing of

notwithstanding these considerations.

But, as these examples suggest, the contrast is a stylistic one. It isn't obligatory for notwithstanding to follow the noun phrase.

Another example is the whole night through vs through the whole night. Again, both versions are possible, and the contrast is stylistic in character. Adjectives, incidentally, can also be postposed for stylistic reasons, as in the old ruined house stood on the hillside vs the house, old, ruined, stood on the hillside.

Some people have suggested that constructions such as who with (vs with who(m)) are examples of postposition - but I think it makes more sense to analyse these as elliptical sentences (i.e. a shortened version of such sentences as Who did you go with?)

Ago is also sometimes called a postposition, because it's obligatory for it to follow the noun phrase. We have to say three weeks ago, not ago three weeks. But ago is usually classified as an adverb, not a preposition. One can see the gradient from preposition to adverb when considering such examples as five years before, three years later, and far away.


  1. One example which has always struck me as a postposition comes in Brother James's Air, a setting to music of a paraphrase of Psalm 23:

    The LORD's my shepherd; I'll not want.

    He makes me down to lie
    in pastures green; he leadeth me
    the quiet waters by;

  2. Night seems to invite a postposition or something similar:

    the whole night through all night long

  3. Is 'nothwithstanding' a preposition? I always thought it was a participial adverbial.

    The postposition 'long', too, is adverbial to me: "all day/night/week/month long" strikes me as an adverb of duration rather than a preposition...

  4. 'Participial' suggests an originating verb, but there is no verb to 'notwithstand'. I wouldn't use that term here.

    It can certainly be an adverb, as in 'John, notwithstanding, decided to go'. And it can also be a conjunction. But in the examples for this post, it's definitely prepositional.

    Yes, 'long' isn't a preposition, but the notion of 'postposition' isn't restricted to prepositions, of course.

  5. There's a verb "to withstand", though.

    But I'll accept your answer: I really was asking.

  6. That's true, but it isn't relevant to the prepositional question, as there isn't a prepositional use without the 'not' bit. We can say 'notwithstanding the objection' but not 'withstanding the objection'.

    Etymologically you're right: historically, the word comes from 'naught' + a participial form of 'withstand'.

  7. Lawyers favour words such as ‘hereto’, ‘herewith’ as ‘therefrom’ (compare German ‘damit’, ‘dazu’, etc.). These seem to show obligatory postposition, as does, possibly, the more common ‘therefore’.

  8. What about "over" as in "the world over"? = "all over the world".

    "Over" seems to collate strongly with "world". It sounds rather strange (to me) in "the land over", "the earth over", etc.

  9. What about the suffix -ward(s)? "Homeward bound", "upwards", "windward", etc. These are, no doubt, adverbial or adjectival in origin; but they act very like postpositions in those languages which have them -- & would probably be translated as such.

  10. I never knew that "ago" was an adverb. As "two years ago" has the same function as "in 2 years" but just reversed, I've always told my students that it is a preposition of time. Might stick to that even though it's wrong, because it is at least easy to understand and remember...

  11. I can't see why telling students it is a 'preposition of time' is any more or less difficult than telling them it is an 'adverb of time'. Certainly, maintaining the fiction that it is a preposition won't help them in the long run, as their understanding of English increases, and they begin to note the parallels between ago and other postposed adverbs. A recipe for greater confusion, I would have thought.

  12. Hmm, "Today we are going to do a lesson on prepositions of time and one adverb of time, but please don't ask me to explain the difference because that would be a 15 minute distraction from what we are trying to learn today"

    Can't see it, especially as it is something that is studied from Elementary level and 95% of Elementary level students are never going to need to be higher than Intermediate. Perhaps because of that, I have never seen the expression "adverb of time" in an EFL textbook. Day to day here on the chalkface, almost every grammar explanation is a compromise between being accurate (assuming it is even a point that the experts agree on) and being easy to understand, use and remember. For that reason, the differences between adverbs and prepositions in phrasal verbs is also something I only explain about 50% of the time, even with higher level classes.

    Looking at it another way, words quite often have different meanings for experts and non experts, and an EFL context is naturally a place where another whole use of grammar terminology can, and should, exist.

  13. I think you need to widen your reading! I've often seen it in EFL coursebooks, ever since I started teaching EFL teachers back in the 1960s. Coincidentally, I was at an EFL conference in Portugal just last week, and the term (along with 'adverb of frequency' and a few others) came up there, and it was obvious that all the teachers knew and used this sort of terminology. The relevance of time adverbs to the teaching of tenses is so important that personally I can't see how you can do without it. To leave them out actually complicates the teaching of tenses. Simplification I fully support, and there are indeed several ways of simplifying the teaching of time expression in TEFL. Teaching something that is 'wrong', as you put it, I don't have any sympathy with, I'm afraid.

  14. The aside on phrasal verbs is not really relevant.

    In Look it up, whatever we choose to call up , it isn't a postposition following it.

    Nor is it fair to tell foreign students that it's a preposition. Unless we make the difference clear, they'll never see the different between Look up the new words and Look up the chimney .

  15. I stand corrected. Obviously I have taught adverbs of time, "recently", "already" and "yet" being some obvious examples. I can't see any parallel between those and "ago" though, and certainly not one I could explain to my Elementary students. We've got "in seven months" and "for seven months", and then "seven months ago". It seems more natural to put those together and call them the same thing to me.

  16. The parallel is that 'already' etc are adverbs of time, and 'for seven months;' etc are adverb phrases of time. The term 'adverbials' subsumes them both, along with adverb clauses. They always are brought together in any grammar book I know.

  17. "'for seven months;' etc are adverb phrases of time"

    but isn't the "for" in that phrase a preposition? Back in my teacher training days, I seem to remember that I learnt that a preposition is followed by a noun and an adverb is not, but that might be a TEFL use again?? I flicked through three random TEFL grammar books yesterday, and they all gave "in" and "on" as prepositions of time, and the one that mentioned "ago" also called it that

  18. Yes, 'for' is a preposition. And prepositions are followed by noun phrases (not by nouns). That is a structural statement. The description as an 'adverbial of time' is a functional statement. The two are not incompatible.

    These points are taking us away from the original topic, and are too elementary for continued discussion in this post. Any future contributions to this theme should focus on the notion of postposition, please.

  19. Well, that's put me in my place...

    Although I haven't done it very well, looking back on the post I think the basis of my question is pretty much on topic. Can anyone explain to me why "ago" is an adverb rather than a postposition? (It doesn't have to be you if this is just increasing your irritation David!) It's a totally new concept to me, and I would indeed think about teaching that to my students if anyone can convince me that it would help

  20. Ago is one of those words which doesn't fit well into any system of word classification (there are several others, such as enough). So the issue is: which word class does it most closely resemble? It is called an adverb by most grammarians because there is at least one clear case of it doing onw of the things that adverbs routinely do - namely, modifying an adjective or adverb. The example is long ago. Prepositions do not do this. What makes ago exceptional is that it also modifies a noun phrase (as in three weeks ago).

    If there were a class of postpositions in English, then it would be possible to argue that ago had some similarities with that. But there isn't. Which is where we all came in. It wouldn't make much sense to set up a new word class category for the language where the only examples of its use were unclear instances such as ago.

  21. Thanks David, that's very clear. I've been trying to get other TEFL teachers' input on how to teach it elsewhere as this isn't the place for such discussions, but no takers yet

  22. José Tiziani (Mendoza, Argentina)25 January 2010 at 10:12

    Hello, everyone. I discovered these blog entries on postpositions a few weeks AGO. Hope it's not too late. I guess the one person who would argue most strongly in favour of AGO as a postposition is R. Huddleston (1984, and Huddleston & Pullum 2002), who called it so in the early 80s and has been doing it ever since. His argument is, mainly, that AGO requires obligatory complementation, a fact which not only makes it HEAD of the phrase -unlike Quirk et al 1985, who see it as a modifying postposed adverb- but also a postposition. They recognise, though, its 'slippery' nature and highlight its exceptional syntactic character. I find it hard, however, to think of AGO as a postposition in LONG AGO, even when H&P mention 'premodifiers' of prepositions, or when Kurzón (2008) entertains the idea of LONG acting as some sort of 'pro-form', its meaning dependent on some unspecified time extent.

  23. José Tiziani (Mendoza, Argentina)28 January 2010 at 21:28

    ...unless we see LONG as an adverb, that is, which is perfectly possible, considering it can function as complement of a preposition (=for long). In this case, we would probably feel happier if we eventually WANTED to class ago as a 'postposed' preposition, or just as another 'preposition' -though maybe not merely as a 'postposition', since the latter can also act as a cover term, a 'bin bag' with different parts of speech inside. Great 2010 to you all and best wishes from scorching hot Argentina!

  24. How about the 'Saxon genitive'? It's now considered a clitic, not an inflection, because it attaches to the end of the whole phrase (the King of Denmark's hat, !the King's of Denmark hat).