May 13, 2004

Writing prepositionlessly

Language Log fans will no doubt want to be sure, having seen a verbless post and a nounless one, that any other lexical category could likewise be eliminated, and intelligible prose still be written. This post constitutes one such exercise that is not too difficult: it absolutely and completely lacks prepositions. It is not too appallingly difficult to write this way (I confess that early drafts slipped many times, but I fixed them). However, it's a bit more difficult when we adopt the modern conception that The Cambridge Grammar advances. This conception entails that far more words get classified "preposition".

Specifically, there are many words that older traditional views take to be adverbs which, the way The Cambridge Grammar analyzes them (following the great Danish grammarian Otto Jespersen), are prepositions that don't require object noun phrases. (I can't list them; they are prepositions, it would ruin everything.) There are also words that traditionally get called "subordinating conjunctions", and The Cambridge Grammar assigns them the categorization prepositions that require a complement clause. I haven't used any words that either category embraces. I haven't been able to use any full comparative constructions, either, because there are two prepositional items that such constructions frequently demand (I'm not permitted to name them; can you?).

Don't worry, however, that the element "to" that the infinitival construction employs ("to be or not to be"), an item that I have used several times, might be impermissible. Its historical origin may be prepositional, but it has no remaining prepositional properties. It is unique: a special marker infinitivals need. No other English word can replace it; and the converse also holds.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 13, 2004 02:48 PM