The promiscuity of prepositions

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Some Language Log readers may have noticed that Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic (see her post here), claims that certain peculiar restrictions on complements of because argue against its being a preposition even in the new use that caused it to become the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013: "the new 'because' isn't a preposition (but is actually cooler)," she claims. (As a result, Daniel Ezra Johnson even tweeted that the new use of because may be the first Word of the Year with the strange property that even the linguists who voted for it can't figure out how to analyze it.)

I have maintained, to the contrary, that because not only is a preposition now (since the rise of the because reasons construction over the past few years) but in fact always has been one, despite every dictionary on the market denying it (see my "Because syntax").

Who is right? All Things Linguistic, or Language Log? I won't toy with you; I won't leave you dangling, unable to decide. I will tell you the answer.

Language Log is right. Not just because the discussion in All Things Linguistic does not set the conditions on because complements broadly enough (as argued in an excellent descriptive post by Stan Carey, commenting on an earlier post, but because of something deeper, on which Stan too is wrong.

The first anti-preposition point Ms. McCulloch makes is that the novel use of because does not seem to allow all NPs: she thinks there is real doubt about phrases like because my homework and because you (she marks them with two prefixed question marks, a linguist's way of indicating a judgment of fairly severe unacceptability). To this I am only going to say that the construction is so new that it is still a tiny shoot spreading from whatever was its initial seed; we have not seen it enough yet to be sure of what sort of NPs are going to be used with it. Time will tell. In its early stages, linguistic change works quite sporadically. The because reasons construction is still in beta test.

But the clincher, the last straw that breaks the preposition analysis, is supposed to be this:

[W]hat's really the last straw for because as a preposition is the fact that you can freely find it with adjectives, interjections, and even certain verbs (not all verbs though), which is really not true of any preposition ever.

That's the false step. This isn't true. Most prepositions can exhibit such behavior. Here are a few examples using the uncontroversially accepted prepositions to, in, except, at, of, with, from, with, for, and than (in each case I underline the relevant PP and follow the example with an indication of the category of the complement):

  • At "Get set!" you should have all the muscles in your legs tensed ready to explode off the blocks. [direct quotation of imperative sentence] I've decided I enjoy hanging out with uglies; I've had enough of beautiful. [adjective]
  • He couldn't speak; he was reduced to "Aarrgh!". [direct quotation of interjection]
  • There is no way to do this except cautiously. [adverb]
  • Alice longed to tell her boss what a piece of crap his painting was, but contented herself with ooh rather than take risks. [interjection]
  • I've moved on from frustrated in the past five days; I'm now officially exasperated. [adjective (or passive participle)]
  • He was hoping for savoir faire, but he really didn't accomplish much more than je ne sais quoi [French idiomatic verbal and clausal expressions]

I made these up, and you may object to that (I applaud you if you do: proper descriptive linguistics should be based on more than invented data). But it is trivial to find examples in real texts. My very first hunch was that I might find a few by looking for "cry of" or "cries of" following by a quotation mark. So I searched the Wall Street Journal corpus, and had a supply of examples like this in under a second:

  • Coon Rapids' other distinction is that for years a golf-course fairway doubled as an airstrip, giving new urgency to the cry of "Fore!"
  • Once the fighter planes can eyeball the bogey — announced with the sporting cry of "Tally ho!" — they can usually score a kill.
  • He is greeted with cries of "Viva Cardenas"
  • To cries of "Box!" from his corner, Leonard was on his toes again in rounds 10 and 11.
  • [Brigadier Camarinha] was defiantly cheered and greeted with cries of "Camarinha for president" when he left his office for the last time.

Looking for "shouts of" produced more:

  • Between-bout attractions included a karate-like dance routine staged by a troupe that punctuated its moves with shouts of "Kill!"…
  • [T]he applause and foot-stamping and shouts of "More, more" frequently drowned out the lyrics.
  • They dragged out an official of the government election management committee, Shin Il Hong, to shouts of "kill him, kill him."
  • [S]houts of "Viva!" echoed through the cavernous meeting hall…
  • Government benches exploded with shouts of "Hear! Hear!" and supporters waved their papers joyfully.
  • She gives her initial shouts of "Hoiotoho" all the full-throttled power they require…

And these are just the first few results of searching for a pattern that is particularly easy to search for because of the quotation mark delimitation of the complement. (Whether including quotation marks with the new use of because will become standard is of course not yet known; at present it hardly occurs outside of Twitter and very informal writing such as blogs and strip cartoon texts.)

Ms. McCulloch speculates in her post that occurrence as the complement of the new use of because might be tied to interjective use: "It seems that whether a verb is acceptable in a 'because x' construction is directly linked to whether it can be used as an interjection." But surely expressions like "Fore!", "Tally ho!", "Viva Cardenas", and "Box!" are being used as interjections in the examples above. And here they are appearing as complements of the absolutely standard-issue familiar preposition of.

The fact is that the mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of "preposition" has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else. To say that prepositions only take NP complements is a misanalysis that commits us to positing three different words spelled after (as in They lived happily after their marriage, They lived happily after they married, and They lived happily ever after), all with essentially the same meaning. Moreover, to say that prepositions like of or at are restricted to an NP complement is an oversimplification: prepositions that take NP complements can also take all sorts of other things when the context forces it: interjections, direct quotations, adjectives, adverbs, participles, imperative clauses, rude noises… Just about anything that might conceivably denote an entity or property that you might want to express as the object of a preposition in a particular situation. Prepositions are versatile, flexible, and quite promiscuous what accompanying constituents they permit.

And that is true even if we ignore (as I have done here) all the cases of clause-taking prepositions that allow predicative adjectives as reduced forms of their clause complements (Although rich he's a Democrat), and we also ignore the long list of idiomatic phrases of Preposition + Adjective, Preposition + Adverb, and Preposition + Preposition forms on the ground that that they might be regarded as fixed expressions (or even words containing spaces): at first, at last, before long, for certain, for free, for later, for long, for sure, from bad to worse, in all, in between, in brief, in earnest, in full, in particular, in private, in public, in sum, in vain, of common, of late, of old, until recently

The notion that a word is a preposition if and only if it takes any and all NPs as complement was never true. (Mark Liberman points out to me that it was not even true for Latin: some Latin prepositions take adjective-phrase complements.) It continues to mislead honest folk (even excellent linguists) into error down to the present day.


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