John Steinbeck used three prepositions in a row in a sentence in "Cannery Row." Or did he? It all depends on how you define "preposition."
A listener named Morgan wrote in with a question about prepositions. In the novel “Cannery Row,” Steinbeck writes, “silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats.” Morgan asks, how can we have “in out of”—three prepositions strung together in a row?
The trick to answering this question is to reframe the question. What if we aren’t looking at three prepositions in a row in this case? Then you can ask, “What kind of words are ‘in,’ ‘out,’ and ‘of’ in Steinbeck’s sentence?”
Although people often think of “in,” “out,” and “of” as prepositions, you can’t tell whether a word is a preposition (or any other kind of word) just by looking at it. To classify a word, it helps to know its grammatical role, its function in relationship to other words around it. And even then experts sometimes disagree.
Let’s start with a simple example. Consider the word “dog.” It morphs from noun to adjective to verb as you go from petting a dog to buying dog food to dogging it.
So what kind of words are “in,” “out,” and “of” in the phrase “pour in out of the boats”? We can say that “in” is a verb particle, and “out of” is a two-word preposition.
How so? Let’s step back and clarify the differences between three types of words that can be hard to tell apart: prepositions, verb particles, and adverbs.
What’s a Preposition?
A simple preposition is a word that appears immediately before—in pre-position to—an object (a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun). In other words, prepositions are “reliable signals that a noun is coming.” (1) A preposition connects its object (such as a noun) to some other element in the sentence.
Take the sentence “Squiggly hopped into the boat.” Here, the simple preposition “into” connects the noun “boat” to the verb “hopped.” We say that the prepositional phrase “into the boat” modifies the verb “hopped.”
A complex preposition, also called a phrasal preposition, is a preposition made up of multiple words. English speakers use complex prepositions all the time. Examples include “according to,” “along with,” “apart from,” “as for,” “because of,” “far from,” and “up against.”
So when fish pour in out of boats, they do so with the help of the phrasal preposition “out of.”