Prepositions: A Handy Chart

In our last post, I mentioned that I’ve been reading Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Handbook of Prepositions, Conjunctions, Relative Pronouns and Adverbs. I shared with you my excitement about acquiring that text and highlighted the importance of “thought-connectives” in our syntax with reference to their example of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

Today I’d like to dig a little deeper into the first of these “thought-connectives:” prepositions. Specifically, let’s look at how prepositions can be categorized – not according to part of speech, or function in the sentence – but more critically, by the sense they make of our ideas. In other words, let’s see how prepositions can help us as writers to think through our content. And let’s see how we can use prepositions to help our readers make sense of our ideas.

Funk and Wagnall’s editors classify prepositions according to PLACE, TIME, QUANTITY, AGENCY and a variety of OTHER RELATIONS including everything from APPEAL to SOURCE.

I have two objections to this scheme. Oking and his trainne, it seems needlessly formal and complex for a 21st century user. Two, in so doing, the editors often confuse a word’s literal meaning with its figurative. For example, they assign the word AFTER one meaning of “behind or below in place or rank; inferior to,” as in the following sentence: What can a man do who comes after the king?

They are not incorrect. But this meaning derives from a group of courtiers and other nobleman who literally would follow behind in the train of a noble procession, a richness of historical accuracy and imagination that we risk losing by their definition.

See likewise their example “[p]lague followed on the heels of famine,” which they define as, “in the relation of sequence of approach, following after, drawing near to.” Surely on the heels  in this case figuratively means “close by, next to, tripping up.” It is idiomatic, describing a nearness in proximity, and can be categorized as a WHERE relationship, without recourse to the needlessly complex category OTHER RELATIONS.

I think it would be helpful, therefore, to create a simplified categorization, and to present it in the form of a chart rather than a list as F&W has done. The sample sentences below are taken primarily from Funk and Wagnall’s, with a few minor edits intended either to correct, update, or emend the original. I have omitted archaic or obsolete prepositions so that the chart can be useful and not pedantic. I’ve also left out participles, because I’d like to treat them separately in another blog post.

Feel free to disagree with me, to add your own examples, and to ask questions. That’s what we’re here for: to learn from one another.

PREPOSITION WHO / WHAT WHERE WHEN HOW,            HOW MANY, HOW MUCH RELATIVE TO:
compared to, belonging to, in opposition to, situated w/ reference to
ABOARD We were invited   aboard the ship.
ABOUT He made a trench about the house.
They   danced about the bonfire.
He left the house about midnight.
Those   present were about four thousand.
There was a question about his credentials. (belonging to)
ABOVE The   mountains towered above the plain.
His conduct is above suspicion. (situated with reference to)
ACROSS He rode across the field.
AFTER The   refugees followed after the troops.
The   property was divided after his death.
This is a painting after Rembrandt. (compared to)
AGAINST He   leaned against the wall.
He acted against my wishes. (in opposition to)
The store will charge it against your account. (belonging to)
ALONG The ship sailed along the coast.
AMID The   villages peeped out amid the woodlands.
AMONG The   house stood among the trees.
It was one example among many. (compared to)
AROUND We   traveled around the world.
AT At the bottom of the sea are many mysteries.
The   train will leave at midnight.
The bank pays interest at two percent.
The nation is at war.^
^Expressing condition or state of being.

Okay, so I got a little carried away. This chart goes on for another 13 pages. If you’d like a copy, sign up and I’ll email you the PDF.

And remember, our next session of 8 Weeks to Writing with Clarity starts April 18th. If you’re on my email list, you’ll get information about the course as it becomes available. If not, be sure to check it out! Unless, of course, you’re not interested in having clarity, focus, or insight into your writing process. I mean, who wants to write clearly, with confidence, certain of the process AND the outcome? Pfft!

Comments

  1. penny raynor says:

    Hi, Thanks for this. What I’ve noticed from inexperienced writers is the overuse of two: “to” and “among.” I’m constantly changing these two, and “among” is often inappropriate. It’s as if people don’t know any others.

  2. I love how you put this into perspective. Although it can seem at times little thought is needed behind this principle, I see errors often! I would never have the patience to read the Funk and Wagnalls version, but I really enjoyed your post!
    Thank you for the chart too… It’s printing as I type this.

    • So glad to hear it’s useful Tami! That’s part of how I see both the internet and the scholarly function. We’re all kind of like little information filters for each other – reading what others don’t have the time to read, and distilling it into the most useful bits. I’m grateful I was able to serve that purpose for you today.

  3. Thanks for a very helpful, insigfhtful, and informative outline of prepositions.

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