Preposition or Adverb?

Read about the case of the preposition/adverb conundrum.

Syelle Graves, Writing for
9-minute read
Episode #564

Today’s episode is about parts of speech and the interesting gray area between prepositions and adverbs. Let’s start with the help section of the Grammar Girl Grammar Pop game, which has this rule about labeling parts of speech:

“Sometimes, words you might think of as prepositions act like adverbs. When a word such as over or up is modifying a verb, it’s acting like an adverb, but in Grammar Pop we still call it a preposition. Grammar Pop calls the words in the following sentences prepositions:

  1. She needed to speak up.
  2. The statue tipped over.

“It's the difference between what something is and what something does: It’s a preposition doing a job that is typically associated with adverbs. Rational people can disagree about this. It’s a gray area of grammar.” 

As a reminder, you may have learned that prepositions are little words like up, over, or with that express time, direction, and spatial relationships, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and entire sentences. (The prepositions up and over in these examples are also a type of preposition called “particles,” but that’s a topic for a future episode!)

This decision to go with what the word is, instead of by what it does, is interesting because it is unusual. In other words, with most gray-area parts of speech, we grammarians do go by the job that the word does in the sentence to make the call. For example, the “-ing” form of a verb can be a present participle, like “The baby is crawling,” but the same -ing word can be a “gerund” instead of a participle. The gerund is the noun form of the -ing verb, like “Crawling is what babies do before they learn to walk.” In that sentence, crawling is the subject, and so it’s acting like a noun, not a verb, even though it technically describes an “action.” And, the -ing words can be adjectives, too! Like this: “Crawling babies can be a real handful.” In that sentence, crawling modifies the noun babies. Even though it seems tricky, we cannot call this third crawling anything but an adjective, because it describes a property of the babies, and is not a verb, nor a noun. You can read more about these -ing forms here and here

The point is, few grammarians would lump all three -ing word types together as one part of speech, and yet, many grammarians keep the “adverb-like” prepositions that we talked about earlier as prepositions, even though they are doing more of an adverbial job. It seems that “adverb” is a part-of-speech category whose members run on a spectrum from “fully adverbial” to “barely adverbial.” In fact, some linguists refer to adverbs that end in -ly, like fortunately or quickly, as “indisputable adverbs”! (2) So why is that? We’ll talk about four possible explanations.

What Makes Some Adverbs Controversial, and Why Do Grammarians Classify “Adverb-like” Prepositions as Prepositions?

Let’s back up and look more closely at those controversial prepositions described in the Grammar Pop instructions. According to traditional grammar, we all agree that the word inside in this sentence is a preposition:

  1. Get inside the castle!

We call inside a preposition because it has an object—the castle. But, in this next sentence, many people call the word inside an adverb:

  1. Get inside!

They call that inside an adverb because without the castle, there is no object of the preposition, and all that inside can modify is the verb get.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a PhD in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). She was also a 40 under Forty alumni award honoree at SUNY New Paltz. You can find her at syellegraves.com.