February 03, 2005

Phrasal prepositions in a civil tone

Oh, dear, I've made a copy editor irritable. This isn't going to be a good day. You see, in a recent discussion of Bryan Garner's sadly tradition-mildewed chapter in the magisterial Chicago Manual of Style, I said, in my lofty ex cathedra tone:

on page 188 he describes word sequences like with reference to as "phrasal prepositions" (they aren't)...

Peter Fisk at A Capital Idea promptly bristles:

...if "with reference to" isn't a phrasal preposition, what is it? Apparently, the only people privy to the "correct" terminology are those who plunk down $160 for the 1,800-page Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

He's dismissing me testily as just a venal terminology-monger! And he adds to this slap a telling extra point in Garner's defense: "He strikes a reasonable balance between the prescriptive and descriptive. And he writes in a civil tone." He's really got me there, hasn't he? I've been accused of a lot of dreadful things, but never of maintaining a civil tone. You should see my first drafts:

Why the hell is it that peopl A lot of morons out there seem to think th It has been drawn to my attention that there is among the ignorant and the unwashed a certain amount of stupid quibbl disagreement concerning...

But let me try. Let me wrestle with my rhetorical demons (they whisper in my ear, in red, "Call him a loony! "). I want to try and provide a civil response to Peter's very reasonable question.

First, Peter: it's not about terminology. I read "phrasal preposition" as a technical description, not just an arbitrary tag with no syntactic import. I take it to embody the claim that things like with reference to and large numbers of others (Garner lists "according to, because of, by means of, by means of, by reason of, by way of, contrary to, for the sake of, in accordance with, in addition to, in case of, in consideration of, in front of, in regard to, in respect to, in spite of, instead of, on account of, out of, with reference to with regard to and with respect to", but big grammars like the one by Quirk and his colleagues list hundreds) are prepositions with a phrasal character, or phrases that function as prepositions. And "phrase" means something here: is on the mat is a phrase, and on the mat is a phrase, but cat is on the is not a phrase.

The Cambridge Grammar takes the trouble to point out that the "phrasal preposition" claim has certain consequences, and those consequences reveal the claim to be false.

These word sequences are not prepositions (they are not words at all), and they are not phrasal (they are sequences of independent words that are commonly kept adjacent, and in some cases they are associated with special meanings, but they don't make up a single part or constituent of a sentence: some bits are in one phrase and some in the next). If that does not suggest to you that talking about "phrasal prepositions" is the wrong way to talk about them, then I hardly know what to say, given this new and unfamiliar policy of keeping a civil tongue in my head.

Second, the discussion in The Cambridge Grammar is not arcane knowledge limited only to those who can slap down $160 on the barrelhead. For those who cannot get to a library or office where it is available, I am always happy to recount and explain, at least a bit. I can do that very briefly here for the case at hand (though I can really only give a smattering of points; the topic is a rich and interesting one, and would suffice to make a lecture of at least an hour).

The case that the sequences in question are not prepositions is overwhelming.

  1. If you call according to a preposition, what on earth is going on in according, I am told, to most authorities in the field ? A clausal parenthetical in the middle of a word? Interrupting a preposition? Parentheticals ("supplements", they are called in The Cambridge Grammar) occur between words, not inside them. (That's exactly why the misnamed "split infinitive" occurs and is — as Garner rightly notes — fully grammatical: to be is not a word, it's two words. So is according to.)

  2. If you call because of a preposition in examples like because of his injury, why is there also a suspiciously similar word of identical meaning in because he was injured ? A word of the same meaning that looks just like the first 7 letters of the alleged word because of ? Aren't we overlooking something here?

  3. And another thing: if you call because of a preposition, what about the fact that there is also a preposition spelled of ? An alleged preposition in which both the first part and the rest look separately like prepositions we already have? This is getting too weird for me.

  4. If you call for the sake of a preposition, you're actually ignoring an occurrence of the definite article inside it. The sake absolutely has to be a definite noun phrase. It can even occur in other noun phrase contexts, e.g., for the sake of peace and harmony. It's a peculiar noun phrase (it has to be definite, and can only occur (a) with a genitive noun phrase determiner, or (b) with the as determiner if the phrase is in complement of for and sake has a preposition phrase complement headed by of), but it's a noun phrase.

No, if you're serious about the notion that "preposition" is the name of a class of words, these sequences cannot possibly be prepositions. So that leaves the notion that they are phrases that function just like prepositions. The trouble is, they aren't phrases at all.

I'll give just one exemplifying argument. Consider in front of. If that's a phrase that functions as a preposition, and has a meaning that is the opposite of behind, then the following contrast is baffling:

[1] Is your car in front of the building, or behind?

[2] *Is your car behind the building, or in front of?

What we actually say is this:

[3] Is your car behind the building, or in front?

Why is that? Because in front of is not a phrase at all. The of goes with the following noun phrase in [1], forming the preposition phrase of the building (the of contributes no meaning of its own, but it's syntactically a part of that phrase, not of what precedes it). In [3], we don't bother to repeat the redundant part, so we leave out the whole phrase of the building. If in front of were a phrase, we would expect [2] to be grammatical, but it isn't.

There are more such arguments. (Consider, for example, why when someone says We can do it by means of intensive lobbying someone else can object, I don't think it's ethical to do it by those means: clearly means is a noun, quite separate from the following (underlined) of phrase, which the second speaker does not repeat.) And I'm not just trying to drum up trade for Cambridge University Press, or to advocate any idiosyncratic terminological replacements, when I say that Chapter 7 of The Cambridge Grammar includes more detailed argumentation: the least a scholar can do when putting forward a claim that some appear to dispute is to say what the claim is, give a sense of the sort of argumentation that supports it, and give a reference to a more serious treatment where full justification may be found. I can't come round to everyone's house with a copy of The Cambridge Grammar and a whiteboard and markers and lay the whole thing out on an individual-instruction basis. I don't know where you all live. (And I have a day job, teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz.)

The bottom line: things have been discovered about English grammar in the last hundred years. I'm not pressing for new names for time-worn concepts, I'm objecting to the way people treat English grammar as if it were a frozen collection of eternal truths like Pythagorean geometry. The analogy is inapt: Pythagoras's theorem about right-angled triangles is true, and his proof of it is sound. Things are very different with grammar. Mistakes were made in the analysis of English syntax in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bryan Garner's presentation (though it is, I agree absolutely very reasonably balanced between prescriptive and descriptive approaches) sadly reflects none of the progress that has been made toward correcting those mistakes. His description of English morphology and syntax is point for point the same as what you can read in a little book that is beside me as I write: J. C. Nesfield's Outline of English Grammar, published in February 1900, exactly a hundred and five years ago. I'm saying, very civilly, that we can do better than this in the matter of grammatical description, and it's about time major publishing houses and dictionary makers started trying to instead of continuing to repeat earlier centuries' errors.

And Peter Fisk is a loony Stop that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 3, 2005 02:23 PM