Preposition or Adverb?

Read about the case of the preposition/adverb conundrum.

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

Transitivity Is Not Just for Verbs

Finally, here’s the most interesting line of reasoning in defense of the preposition label for words like up in the sentence “She needs to speak up” and inside in “Get inside.” You may have heard of “transitivity” as a property of verbs. For example, snore is intransitive, because it never takes a direct object (a direct object is a recipient of the action), while devour is transitive, because it sounds very strange without a direct object. She devoured. It just sounds weird. In other words, in English sentences, something edible must be devoured. Further, there is an interesting middle ground for verbs that alternate, such as fly: They can be both transitive and intransitive, in different sentences. You can fly a plane, which is a transitive use of fly with the direct object a plane, but you can also just fly. (Wouldn’t that be nice!) Snore, on the other hand, is called “obligatorily intransitive,” because it really can’t alternate or be used transitively (again, “used transitively” means “used with a direct object”). You can’t really snore anything. Another example of an obligatorily intransitive verb is sneeze. Let’s re-cap: “Neil flies (transitive verb) planes (direct object).” “Neil flies (intransitive verb).” You can also read more about transitivity here.

Now, by the way: Some of you may be trying to find examples of forcing an obligatorily intransitive verb like snore to take an object. A common example people come up with is “But, I can say, ‘He snored the night away’!” That sentence is metaphorical, and it may seem like the night is the direct object of snored, but it technically isn’t. The night is not actually being snored, or affected by the snoring action in any way. This is one of the fun things about unconscious language and grammar rules: We “break” the rules in certain situations, such as when we want to create humor, metaphors and idioms, or poetry. In other words, remember that just because a verb has words after it, that doesn’t mean it is transitive. Here is another example: “Poppy sneezed all day.” In that sentence, sneeze is intransitive, because “all day” is an adverbial expression that indicates the duration of her sneezing action, but not “what” she sneezed, so it is not a direct object. 

OK so, when elements such as objects are required after a verb, those are called “arguments” by syntacticians. Arguments can be subjects, direct objects, or indirect objects, for example. Unlike optional words like adverbs, arguments are required by the grammar rules. Verbs take inventory, so to speak. For example, to give (like this):

  1. Eleanor gave a house to Kate.

usually requires three arguments: First, a subject: Eleanor to do the giving action. All English verbs require subjects. Second, a direct object: a house. Third, an indirect object: (to) Kate. We know all three are required in this context because “Eleanor gave Kate” sounds very strange. Kate is the indirect object, because she is the recipient of the direct object a house. Indirect objects usually have to or for in front of them, like “I baked a cake for our guest.” You can read more about direct and indirect objects here.

Prepositions have argument structure, too!

This system of arguments that verbs take, reject, and require is called “argument structure,” and here’s where things get interesting for prepositions: Prepositions have argument structure, too! For example, the preposition by is a transitive preposition. “The dress is by the chair” is fine, but “The dress is by” makes no sense at all. (You may be thinking that the chair in that sentence is the object of the preposition by, and that’s right.)

The point is that viewing prepositions as having transitivity is one way grammarians can reject that adverb label for the adverb-like prepositions. Some linguists theorize that those prepositions with no object are intransitive, the way the verb snore is intransitive, or the way the verb eat can be either one. This line of reasoning points out that when verbs like fly don’t have an object, we don’t re-name the part of speech of the verb; we just say that the verb fly is intransitive in that particular sentence. Therefore, logic suggests not re-naming prepositions as adverbs just because they have no object. In that way, in our “Get inside!” example, you could say that inside is just an intransitive preposition. (2) 

What’s neat about this theory is that there are actually a few prepositions that must always take objects, like to and toward. In other words, you can’t say “Andrea ran toward,” with no object. So, those prepositions are obligatorily transitive, like the verb devour. Also parallel to verb transitivity is the fact that most prepositions can alternate, which means both be prepositions (i.e., take an object) and be adverb-like prepositions that do the job of an adverbs. Two examples are prepositions down or around. These are parallel to those verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive, like fly or eat. Finally, there are prepositions that cannot ever take an object, like away and overhead, and so they are obligatorily intransitive prepositions, like our example intransitive verbs snore and sneeze. (2, 4) You’ve probably never heard the term intransitive preposition, but classifying prepositions without objects as intransitive—instead of as adverbs—can even be found in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (3, 5) Welcome to advanced linguistics!

As you can see, the distinction between adverbs and prepositions is an interesting gray area of grammar, and calling the adverb-like prepositions “adverbs” isn’t always the right choice. Just because a preposition does the job of an adverb, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is no longer a preposition. It seems best to choose the category you prefer as needed—but be prepared with a good defense for your choice!

This article was written by Syelle Graves, who has two master's degrees in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com


(1)Brill, E. (1994). Some Advances in Transformation-Based Part of Speech Tagging. Spoken Language Systems Group Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(2)Burton-Roberts, N. (1991). Prepositions, adverbs, and adverbials. In I. Tieken-Boon van Ostade, & J. Frankis (Eds), Language: Usage and description (pp. 159–172). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

(3)Cappelle, B. (2005). The particularity of particles, or why they are not just ‘intransitive prepositions’. Belgian Journal of Linguistics, 18, 29–57.

(4)Emonds, J. (1972). Evidence that indirect object movement is a structure-preserving rule. Foundations of Language, 8(4), 546–561.

(5)Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G.K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

(6)Myler, N. (2017). Personal communication.


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.