Knowing a Preposition from a Particle

In my morning paper, the headline “Just do it! Dangle a few prepositions” caught my eye. The article is about the common misconception that ending a sentence with a preposition is a major writing flaw in English.

Because I have written on the same topic (“Go Ahead, Put that Preposition at the End”), I was curious to see what the writer had to say.

I faltered at the headline because in the context of grammar, the verb dangle applies to participles, but I put the choice of words down to the creativity of a headline writer.

Next, I puzzled over this definition offered by the writer: “Prepositions are words that describe location, time or condition.”

Prepositions do not by themselves describe location, time or condition.

Prepositions are used in combination with nouns, pronouns, or noun equivalents to create phrases that can describe location, time or condition. The most usual use of a preposition is to introduce a phrase. A prepositional phrase can then be used the way an adverb is used to to indicate where, when, and how.

For example:

Frodo lives in a hole. (location)

The children eat oatmeal in the morning. (time)

The boy’s life is in jeopardy. (condition)

A more accurate definition of preposition is this:

A preposition is a word that combines with a noun, pronoun, or noun equivalent to form a phrase that has an adverbial, adjectival, or substantival relation to some other word.

For example:

The woman with the red hair is beautiful. (prepositional phrase used adjectivally to describe the noun woman.)

Lola always travels with her cat. (prepositional phrase used adverbally to modify the verb travels.)

The teacher pointed to what I was writing. (prepositional phrase whose object is a noun clause [what I was writing], i.e., a noun equivalent.)

Next, the writer of this article about prepositions offered two examples of “awkward” sentences rewritten to eliminate “a preposition at the end.” Here they are:

Awkward: Where are you at?
Better: Where are you?

Awkward: Could you turn the light off?
Better: Could you turn off the light?

The problem with the first sentence is not that a preposition has been placed at the end. The problem is that the interrogative word where means “where in or at what place?” The at is not “misplaced.” It’s unnecessary.

The second sentence fails as an example for this discussion because the word off is not being used as a preposition in the usual way. In this sentence, off is a particle belonging to the phrasal verb, turn off.

Phrasal verbs are a common feature of English.

A phrasal verb is a verb that consists of two (or three) parts. The first word in the phrase is always a verb. The next word/s will be a word such as back, down, in, off, or any of several words that in other contexts would be identified as a preposition or an adverb. These words, when they are used as part of a phrasal verb, are called particles.

Some verb phrases are separable and some are not.

Separable phrasal verbs can take the object between the verb and the particle or after the particle. The phrasal verb turn off is separable. Either “Could you turn the light off” or “Could you turn off the light,” is acceptable idiomatic English.

When the object of a separable verb phrase is a pronoun, however, the object must go in the middle: “For the last time, could you please turn it off?”

“Could you please turn off it” is not an option.

Here are two better examples of sentences in which a preposition has left its object behind and comes all naked at the end of the sentence:

Who were you talking to?

The president of the college is the person you spilled coffee on.

Both these sentences are idiomatic English. Rewriting them would create very formal constructions that would sound stilted in modern conversational English:

To whom were you talking?

The president of the college is the person on whom you spilled coffee.

Bottom line: Ending a sentence with a preposition is not the gaffe some people seem to think it is. On the other hand, knowing when a word is a preposition can be a bit tricky.

Go Ahead, Put that Preposition at the End