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Linguist reads the paper: First sentence in Friedman's column begins "Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks …" and before I got to the battle tanks I was surprised and wondering how 'preposition' could be used as a verb and what it could mean. (I'm of course seeing the word that starts with 'prep', had to be garden-pathed before I backtracked and saw the verb pre-position.)

I won't be surprised if readers of this blog had a similar first parse of my header –  its occurrence in this blog will probably make that even more likely.


  1. Barbara Partee said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    When I posted this on Facebook an hour or so ago, one friend remarked that this is what hyphens are for. That made me curious. I would suppose that among those for whom that verb is common, it's reasonable for the hyphen to have disappeared. I'd be curious for statistics about "pre" words with that sense and how many are hyphenated and how many not, and whether it's a function of relative novelty or of possible ambiguity or what.

  2. John A said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:02 am

    He likely thinks it's a synonym for "to proposition someone". Still ugly substitute for propose in that context.

  3. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:15 am

    All prepositions can be verbed.

    But don't you usually analyze "preposition" as "pre-position"? I feel I'm always aware of such structure in words and larger units and would only wonder what it means to "pre-position" the tanks: in front of some formation, maybe, or early on in some sequence of moves, or something like that. Hm, perhaps I don't do this in my native tongue. I'll need to think about that.

  4. Jin Defang said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:16 am

    "prepositioning" has been US government jargon ever since I remember. I asked why, since the "pre" is completely unnecessary. Was told "it is what it is, this is what we do." I feel the same (negative) way about "proactive." One is either active or inactive.

  5. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:29 am

    Superfluous pre- is becoming increasingly popular, it seems to me. Tickets aren't booked, they're pre-booked. Meals aren't prepared, they're pre-prepared.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:29 am

    I would hyphenate it, just as I hyphenate "re-sign" when it means to sign again.

  7. Lazar said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    Also "recreation" vs. "re-creation".

  8. Stan Carey said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    I was primed to misparse the header by a Bizarro cartoon ('Are you trying to preposition me?') I was reminded of during the week.

  9. Rob P. said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 8:05 am

    Back when I was a teenager, I had a friend who asked me at the end of one work day whether I'd like to join him in going out to, "…preposition young babes."

  10. greg said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    It's like whether or not to add a dieresis to words that have doubled vowels when given a prefix.

  11. nbm said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 8:38 am

    I've heard "pre-arrive." When I said, "That'll take a time machine," I got a puzzled look, and we moved right on.

  12. J. F. said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 8:56 am

    I always thought of them as "prep-ositions" until I heard about postpositions; now I always think "pre-positions".

  13. Alan Palmer said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 9:00 am

    I noticed this a while back when I was proofreading an email before sending it. Someone had sent an email to a colleague but had heard no more; could I do anything? In my reply I started out 'I resent your email … [to my colleague]' but spotted the ambiguity in time and changed it to 're-sent'.

  14. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    @Jussi Piitulainen: “All prepositions can be verbed.”

    Uh, what? You can’t “*with something” or “*behind something.”
    And what even prompted you to say that?
    Barbara never said anything about whether or not prepositions could be verbed. She was wondering how the word “preposition” could be used as a verb.

  15. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    @Adrian Bailey: “Superfluous pre- is becoming increasingly popular, it seems to me. […] Meals aren’t prepared, they’re pre-prepared.”

    There’s a difference between preparing a meal and pre-preparing it.
    To prepare a meal simply means to make it. To pre-prepare it means to make it in advance.

  16. georgeW said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    This gets stickier if you try to noun it. He asked what that tank is doing over there? I told him it is a prepositon.
    (Of course there is no ambiguity in speech, different vowels in pre-)

  17. KeithB said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    Are you referring to "Morning has Broken"?

  18. Curtis G. Booth said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    I work (as a writer) for a company that builds passenger boarding bridges for aircraft. A bridge has to move up or down and from side to side to position itself so it can dock to an aircraft. The bridge’s software can, however, pre-position the bridge for specific types of aircraft so that the aircraft essentially docks to the bridge rather than the other way around. I always spell pre-position with a hyphen, but sometimes I’m tempted to spell it pre position, analogous to the spelling in Hollywood of cinematic post production, which always (?) has a space rather than a hyphen or being closed up, even though closing it up would not violate any spelling rules I know of. In these cases, pre and post practically seem to function as separate words, not prefixes.

  19. Barbara Partee said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    Apologies to Tom Fox for my bad writing. I just copied what I'd posted for my friends, who are all friends but aren't all linguists. When I wrote "seeing the word that starts with 'prep'", I was just indicating the word pronounced with first syllable "prep". Yes, of course etymologically that one is also pre + position, but it's such an old word that the pronunciation is now as if it started with "prep". And it was me that got garden-pathed. My friends didn't have so much trouble understanding me. It's surprising to me that there were more relevant examples, statistics, and references in response to my Facebook posting than there are so far here — I expected the reverse, which was why I copied it here. In particular, FB friends gave me references showing that 'preposition' in the intended sense has become a completely standard verb in military contexts.

  20. David Hill said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 10:48 am

    I do copyediting work and hyphens with prefixes are generally disparaged as unnecessary in print style (almost every manuscript has some that have to be taken out). Nevertheless, the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g.) makes a specific exception for word pairs with distinct meanings and pronunciations that involve re-, like re(-)cover, re(-)creation, and as mentioned above re(-)sent. The hyphen marks the novel/less familiar/nonidiosyncratic word.

    I don't see any reason this rule should apply to re- and not to pre-, as in pre(-)position. (Or "prepare the apples by pre-paring them.") The military meaning is not even listed in Webster's. On the other hand, if, as a commenter on Barbara's Facebook indicated, the army uses "preposition" with no hyphen . . . I'll bet Friedman's copyeditor at the NYTimes spent some time on this word. I doubt the Times would let the army's usage override their own in-house formatting rules, but maybe.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    I, a non-linguist, can't take apposition on this.

  22. Stephen said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    @Barbara Partee, @David Hill

    As someone who has an interest in military matters I read "America is prepositioning battle tanks" the way it was intended. I have seen idea referred to often enough that 'prepositon' as a verb means that to me. So I am pretty sure that people in the military would automatically use it that way.

    This idea was a big deal for a long time, see

    There is still a lot of this done by the US military, see

    In the second link, when POMCUS is expanded the 'P' becomes "Prepositioning" (presumably from a military definition) but in the following sentence this is described as large amounts of "pre-positioned" equipment (presumably from the Wiki MoS).

    @Jin Defang
    Given the purpose I would disagree that the 'pre' is completely unnecessary.

    A military unit has many men in it as well lots of equipment. To position that unit, then it all moves together from A to B. By pre-positioning just the equipment you are moving that part from A to B now so that when you want the unit to fight you only have to move the men.

  23. Lazar said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: That's another interesting case. When they needed to coin a collective term for prepositions, postpositions and circumpositions, the expected term would have been apposition, but since that word was already in use for a different purpose, they had to use adposition instead.

  24. ohwilleke said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

    ""prepositioning" has been US government jargon ever since I remember. I asked why, since the "pre" is completely unnecessary. Was told "it is what it is, this is what we do." I feel the same (negative) way about "proactive." One is either active or inactive."

    I wouldn't consider either redundant. Prepositioning is putting something in place before it is needed. Positioning would be a maneuver during an actual live conflict.

    Proactive, means taking action that is not in reaction to someone else. Active is ambiguous as to when and why you are taking action.

  25. Rebecca said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    @Adrian Bailey: Superfluous pre- is becoming increasingly popular, it seems to me. Tickets aren't booked, they're pre-booked.

    I wonder if "pre-booked" took on life from "pre-order", since booking something is often very much like ordering something. The "pre-" in "pre-order", obviously, is not superfluous, since it involves ordering something knowing that the order cant and won't be filled until a later date. Can "pre-booking" ever have that distinction?

  26. rosie said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

    Did dinosaurs predate hominids? No — dinosaurs pre-dated hominids.

    @Tom S.: What food-making is not in advance?

  27. georgeW said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    I would point out that 're-pair' has been gaining currency recently with the introduction of the Apple Watch which must be "paired" with the owner's iPhone. If trouble ensues, one of the recommended steps is to "re-pair" the watch and phone.

    In speech, 're-pair' and 'repair' are, I think, pronounced differently, the former with stress on the first syllable and the latter with stress on the second syllable.

  28. David Morris said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    Let's hope none of them gets stranded, not that there's anything wrong with.

  29. Ron said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    Prepositioning is putting something in place before it is needed.
    This is exactly right. When I was a lawyer I used to represent a large bank that would act as the agent for a syndicate of banks which would collectively fund the loan. We often required the syndicate banks to pre-position the funds by depositing them with my client (funny how that worked) the night before closing. That way, everyone knew that the loan proceeds would be available immediately. Deals in which pre-positioning was not required occasionally had very exciting closings.

  30. Ray said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    interesting how the ‘pre’ can get so elided and time-warpy… ‘prelease’ means to lease a building or apartment before it’s even built, while ‘prequel’ comes after a movie or story to provide the back-story, and ‘prepeat’ is saying the exact same thing before someone else says it (like at a movie, when your date says all the funny lines before danny devito does)…

  31. KevinM said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    Some seemingly redundant uses of "pre," I think, can be justified. They convey that something was done in the specific contemplation of a particular future event. I might position tanks in different places around a military base. To say I "pre[-]positioned" them carries an implication that I arrayed them for battle. I can even defend the "pre-prepared" meal. What's being conveyed is that the food is being prepared in advance of what you'd ordinarily expect; not, for example, cooked up in the kitchen and carried to the table, but prepared in advance, to be heated and served to, e.g., airline passengers. I like prepared foods; I don't like pre-prepared foods. So I think the terms make a useful distinction.

  32. Gerald H said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

    Do you know about prepone? "It was necessary to prepone the meeting from 11:00 to 9:00 this morning." This was heard in India.

  33. BZ said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 8:49 am

    I hear prepone all the time from fellow programmers from India. I guess we don't prepone things too often here in the US. Another computer-related Indian innovation is "updation" (and less often "upgration") buy analogy with "creation".

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