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Some interesting posts recently by Brett at English, Jack: "A newly discovered preposition", 8/7/2009; "More evidence for 'compared' as a preposition", 8/11/2009:

I believe that I may be the first person to have realized that compared is a preposition. It is not listed as such in any of the dictionaries that I consulted, and you may very well be wondering how compared could possibly be a preposition. Let me try to explain.

Brett's argument starts with the observation that sentence-initial participial adjuncts are often felt to be "danglers" when not predicated of the subject of the following clause.

Fearing a massive lay-off, there was a general sense of relief when the boss announced there would be no new budget cuts.

In contrast, prepositional-phrase adjuncts don't have this problem:

After a massive lay-off, there was a general sense of anger.

He then observes that what seem to be past-particle adjuncts with "compared to" behave in this respect more like PPs:

Compared to ICS alone, there was a significantly greater improvement in FEV1 with the addition of LABA.

This is a valid argument, but not a new one. CGEL discusses it in chapter 7, section 2.3 (pp. 610-611);

For the most part, verbs are clearly distinguishable from prepositions by their ability to occur as head of a main clause and to inflect for tense. There are, however, a number of prepositions that have arisen through the conversion of secondary, non-tensed, forms of verbs:

[21] i  [Barring accidents,] they should be back today.
ii  There are five of them, [counting/including the driver.]
iii  [Pertaining to the contract negotiations,] there is nothing to report.
iv  [Given his age,] a shorter prison sentence is appropriate.

The basis for analysing the underlined words here as prepositions is that there is no understood subject. This is effectively the same criterion as we have used in distinguishing prepositions from adjectives: prepositions can be used in adjunct function without a predicand, i.e. and element of which they are understood to be predicated. The preposition counting in [ii], for example, is to be distinguished from the gerund-participial verb-form in:

[22]  [Counting his money before going to bed last night,] Max discovered that two $100 notes were missing.

The boundary between the prepositional construction [21] and the verbal [22] is slightly blurred by the usage illustrated in:

[23] i   [Turning now to sales,] there are very optimistic signs.
ii  [Bearing in mind the competitive environments,] this is a creditable result.
iii  [Having said that,] it must be admitted that the new plan also has advantages.

These differ from [22] in that no subject for the underlined verb is recoverable from the matrix clause. They are similar to what prescriptivists call the 'dangling participle' construction illustrated in examples such as *Walking down the street, his hat fell off, ungrammatical in the sense where it was he, not his hat, that was walking down the street. Unlike the latter, however, the examples in [23] are generally regarded as acceptable. They differ from the prepositional construction in that there is still an understood subject roughly recoverable from the context as the speaker or the speaker and addressees together.

In his second post on the subject, Brett adds some other examples, as well as a persuasive new argument:

Another piece of evidence comes from coordination. Typically parallelism dictates that we coordinate only like with like. It would not typically allow us to coordinate a PP with a VP. In the following sentences, however, we have a PP coordinated with a phrase headed by 'compared':

  1. Americans live very well, both by historical standards AND compared to other people in the world today.
  2. A major finding, however, was that emissions at the four sites differed greatly both between sites AND compared to national trends in emissions between 1970 and 1990.

At least, this shows that the "compared to" phrases are serving as adverbial adjuncts in parallel to the <i>by</i>-PP. A participial phrase that is clearly in apposition with a subject doesn't generally conjoin with adverbials this way:

*Unexpectedly and counting her money, Sally found $100 missing.
*With a wink and talking on his cell phone, John ran out the door.

(Those of you interested in the phenomenon of "dangling modifiers" may wish to join the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct, though you should be aware of the Fellowship's credo that this is a matter of etiquette rather than grammar.)


  1. JeffE said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    Surely the (putative) preposition is "compared to", not just "compared".

    [(myl) I believe that the CGEL analysis is that e.g. in "pertaining to the contract", pertaining is a preposition that takes a PP complement, like because in "because of the contract".]

  2. GrammarIsLovely said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    agree with JeffE…
    can't all prepositions be used to end a question starting with a wh- word?:
    who did she go with?
    what are you afraid of?
    *what can it be compared?

    [(myl) Sorry, these examples are irrelevant for several reasons.

    First, Brett's argument is *not* that compared is always a preposition, just that it sometimes is. And in "It can be compared to X", compared is clearly a past participle in a passive construction.

    Second, in your examples of wh-questions with prepositions, the prepositions are expressing the complement of a main verb or predicate adjective ("go with", "be afraid of"). Questioning the complement of more remote adjunctive relationships is more awkward but often still possible, e.g. "Who did she attack them because of?" The comparable case for Brett's hypothesis would be something like "Who did he improve compared to?", which is certainly awkward but not (I think) ungrammatical.

    In any case, the full complement structure is needed — "*Who did she attack them because?" doesn't work at all, and neither does "*Who did he improve compared?"

    So you've taken a wh-question focus on the complement of a PP in a passive sentence ("What can it be compared to?"), left out the preposition "to", and compared the result to cases that question the object of a prepositional complement to a main verb or an adjective. This is thus triply irrelevant to the issue under discussion.]

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    Look again at your examples GrammarIsLovely. The verb in the first sentence is 'go'; in the second 'be'; in the third however it is 'compare'.

    All prepostions don't make sense with the verb 'be'.
    *What is it of?
    *What is it to?
    *What is it since?
    *What is it pace?
    *What is it per?
    *What is it versus?

  4. John Walden (aka JuanTwoThree) said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    As you say, there is a recoverable elided implied subject:

    (If we are) turning now to sales, there are very optimistic signs.
    (If we are) bearing in mind the competitive environments, this is a creditable result.
    *(If we are) having said that*, it must be admitted that the new plan also has advantages

    and/or might it be arrived at via some kind of passivyish structure? :

    If accidents are barred (by us) = *Accidents barred* = (we/our) barring accidents

    The same goes for "If the driver is counted/included". "Given his age" seems to be closer still to some kind of elision of a passive followed by fronting.

    Isn't the thrust of the theory slightly weakened when the second word is a preposition anyway?

    Compared to, Pertaining to, Talking about, Turning to, and so on

    although the presence or absence of a preposition does seem rather arbitrary in the first place:

    "Concerning other matters" and "Referring to other matters" seem like "hear" and "listen to" in that there's a "to" because there is.

    Sorry if these random musings make no sense at all. In partial mitigation, it's hot, Spain, after lunch and I am completely out of my depth. If not my mind.

  5. Karen said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    While CEGL talks of Preps that take PPs, I like to think of complex (or compound) Preps. It may not be as accurate, but it's easier to explain to students.

  6. Robert said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    I'm not convinced by the coordination argument. Sentences like "Would you rather go jogging or to the gym?" sound acceptable to me, though jogging isn't a proposition. The grammatical requirement for coordination may be stronger than the two terms simply being able to fit in the same frame, but is is really as strong as full equivalence, that is, being able to fit in all the same frames?

  7. NW said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    No, the coordination argument is very weak. I find a lot of attested mismatched coordinations ungainly if not ungrammatical, but there's nothing wrong with: both historically and by today's standards.

    That said, the predication argument is sound.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    I agree with Karen that it's easier to think of compound prepositions than prepositions that take a PP. MWCD11 defines "ahead of" simply as a preposition. While it also defines "next" as a preposition, this usage is archaic (as in Dryden, "Her princely guest was next her side; in order sat the rest"), and modern usage has "next to." In fact "compared to" can often be replaced by "next to." Still, I prefer to hear "compared to" as though with an elided "when [1] [2]," where [1] is whatever is being compared and [2] is the appropriate form of "be," as in "[when FEV1 is] compared to ICS…." or "[when I am] compared to you, I'm a glutton." It's hard to think of prepositions as being associated with such elisions.

  9. John Lawler said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    The introductory phrases in CGEL's [23 i-iii] —
    Turning now to ____,
    Bearing in mind ____,
    Having said that,

    — seem to me to be fixed phrases, basically extended idiomatic metaphors used rhetorically to mark and modify the idea flow. They seem to have a little lexical wiggle, but not much:

    Turning/Going/Moving/*Walking/*Strolling (on) to ____,
    Bearing/Keeping/*Having/*Getting/*Placing in mind ____,
    Having said/noted/seen/realized/*declaimed/*claimed/*believed/ that,
    (NB: That said/?noted/*seen/*realized)

    I don't think one really needs a very sophisticated syntactic parse, with firmly delimited lexical categories, for fixed phrases; they are what they are to their users, and there's no reason to believe that they're parsed in the same ways (or even at all) in most cases.

    These borderline prepositional phenomena remind me of the case of worth (see, which is either a very odd preposition or a noun that takes a complement.

  10. Theo Vosse said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    1. Why should compared be a preposition? Only because it is the lexical head of something resembling a PP?
    2. Other modifiers also behave like PPs: "Yesterday, there was a significantly greater improvement in FEV1 with the addition of LABA." Is that a reason to label yesterday a preposition, since, apparently, prepositions do not have to be followed by an (empty) NP or S to form a PP?
    3. "Compared to" has to be a predicant of the subject when that is not an ersatz pronoun, e.g. "Compared to Stalin, Hitler was …" vs "*Compared to a dog, he liked a cat better".
    4. What's the role of frequency? How do you read: This dog is the best animal I have compared to a cat.
    5. In at least Dutch and Spanish, the effect seems to be the same (vergeleken met, comparado con).

  11. kip said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    @Stephen Jones:

    All prepostions don't make sense with the verb 'be'.
    *What is it of?
    *What is it to?
    *What is it since?
    *What is it pace?
    *What is it per?
    *What is it versus?

    Some of those make perfect sense in the right context:

    "I just saw a lovely painting." "What was it of?"

    "Look, a letter." "Who is it to?"

  12. Russell said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 5:27 pm


    re 2: Jim McCawley's grammar of English (p207-8; seeable on google) goes through some arguments for treating "adverbial" (scare quotes) uses of tomorrow/yesterday/today as NPs which are the objects of null Ps, with the result that they are internally N(P)s and externally PPs.

    Not to say one can't argue against his points, either descriptively or analytically. (for one thing, it's a commonly-followed but not a hard-and-fast rule that internal syntax uniquely determines external syntax, and vice versa).

  13. Emily said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    In all of the examples using the phrase "compared to," shouldn't it actually be "compared with"?

    Those sentences are not likening two things; they are contrasting them.

  14. Brett said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    @John Lawler:

    Have you considered that worth might be an adjective? It's certainly strange.

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    I'll take the one about the painting.

    'Who is it to?' is not what I wrote. I challenge you to find contexts for the others, though you might be able to.

  16. Randall Burns said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    @Stephen Jones:

    'There's a trail ahead.' 'What is it to?', for example, seems logical to me, if less appropriate than, 'Where does it lead?'.

    In the same vein, 'What is it since?' seems an appropriate follow-up to 'It's been five years', in that I would personally answer 'Since what?'

    'What is it versus?' requires a tad bit more set-up, but if we use 'who' instead, I imagine it's a common question.

    'What is it per?' in and of itself seems like an odd question, but if followed with a word like bushel would make sense, and thus if the per x were understood in context, it could be uttered. Perhaps some bizarre math problem, as "John bought 89 bushels of apples for $69,543. To the nearest cent, what is it per?".

    As for 'What is it pace?', I've not seen the seen pace used in a long while, but perhaps 'I've been given permission to land' could be responded to by 'What/who is it pace?' as an inquiry towards what body decreed it.

  17. Tom Saylor said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Brett's argument starts with the observation that sentence-initial participial adjuncts are often felt to be "danglers" when not predicated of the subject of the following clause.

    Fearing a massive lay-off, there was a general sense of relief when the boss announced there would be no new budget cuts.


    I think most people who feel that "Fearing a massive layoff" is a dangler in the sentence above would likewise feel that "Compared to ICS alone" is a dangler in "Compared to ICS alone, there was a significantly greater improvement in FEV1 with the addition of LABA." When I read the latter sentence, I scratch my head and wonder what it is that's being compared to ICS alone. My first guess is that it's a significantly greater improvement in FEV1 with the addition of LABA. Once I realize that's not what was intended, I can't help but feel that a participle has been dangled.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:15 pm

    I agree with Robin and NW that the argument based on parallelism is weak.

    It's true that you can't say, *"Unexpectedly and counting her money…" but I also can't say, *"Unexpectedly and later" or "Without warning and while counting her money…" (Maybe some people can.) The problem seems to be semantic, not semantic.

    Also, the comparisons are unfair–they should be with past participles like "compared", not with present participles. How about "With a wink and obviously pleased by the news, John ran out the door."? That doesn't sound bad to me.

    Also, my impression is that people learn a lot of parallel structures from prescriptive teaching, if at all, and my experience is that lack of parallelism is one of the most common non-standard features in writing that's meant to be standard (as when I grade answers to physics questions).

    This reminds me of a question I've been wondering about. Here's an example from the CGEL (7.12):

    It contrasts rather than combines with them.

    Perfectly normal, at least in academic or formal writing.

    One might expect

    ?It contrasts with them rather than combines with them.

    There, despite the obvious parallelism, I want to say "combining".

    One might further expect

    *Rather than combines with them, it contrasts with them.

    That's just impossible. We have to say "combining".

    What's going on here?

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    "Semantic, not syntactic", that is.

  20. John Lawler said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    > Have you considered that worth might be an adjective? It's certainly strange.

    Yes, I got it wrong from memory. Sorry. In fact what I said in my 1989 paper was

    "Whereas value is a noun with derived verbal senses … the categorial status of worth is a matter of some dispute. It has variously claimed to be a preposition or an adjective (cf Maling 1983 and McCawley 1985). If it is a preposition, then it must have a homophonous noun, since phrases like the worth of the book are common enough. On the other hand, if it is an adjective, then it must be transitive, since it has a complement; this is surely unusual, or even impossible, according to some theories of grammatical categories. … [L]et it stand that no matter what category worth may belong to, it is an atypical example of the category."

  21. Tom Saylor said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    How regularly must a participle be dangled before dictionaries accord it prepositional status? Webster's lists neither "judging (by) "nor "based (on)" as a preposition, and yet those expressions are very commonly found in contexts like these:

    Judging by Martin's reaction, the meeting did not go well.

    Based on anecdotal evidence, the herb is effective in treating insomnia.

  22. Tom Saylor said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    To Jerry Friedman:

    I've often puzzled about this myself. I suppose that in "It contrasts rather than combines with them" the "than" has to be a conjunction, as it coordinates two finite verbs. In "*Rather than combines with them, it contrasts with them", there's no finite verb preceding "than", so "than" can't be interpreted as a coordinating conjunction. In that position, "than" has to be interpreted as a preposition, and it's odd to have a finite verb ("combines") rather than a gerund ("combining") as the object of a preposition. A complication here is that we do, I think, say things like

    Rather than repair her old lawn mower, she bought a new one.

    Is it normal to have a bare infinitive ("repair") as the object of a preposition?

    P.S.: How do you guys manage to get italics into your comments?

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    To John Lawler: Did you compare "worth ten dollars" to "eight feet deep", "two hours long", "a thousand strong"? Those feel similar to me, except the word order is reversed.

    To Tom Saylor: That sounds good (not that I'm an expert). It's the same reason you can't say, *"He and plays guitar sings."

    With "rather than", my impulse is always to use the gerund (as with "instead of"), though I'm not saying bare infinitives or finite verbs are wrong in any sense. That may just be me.

    You can get italics with the usual HTML tags: <i>italics</i>.

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    We often say 'ten dollars worth'.

    How much petrol do you want?
    Ten dollars worth

  25. Chris Waigl said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    Re: JeffE, GrammarIsLovely, Karen — grammatical classification and the terminology that captures it (is there something like a compound preposition) varies considerably across practitioner groups, and regions. I've not come across a single set of teaching materials intended for non-native speakers that wouldn't consider "because of", "due to" or even "in front of" as a (ie, one) preposition. Why? I think for two reasons – because it's naively easy to grasp how these blocks can be slotted into a syntactic place that could be occupied by a preposition, and second because they often can be matched up with genuine prepositions from the learner's native language.

    From there doesn't follow that this terminology stands up to more rigorous grammatical analysis. So while it can be useful, it can at the same time be wrong.

  26. Dangling postings « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    […] ML, 8/14/09: Compared: (link) […]

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