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How Many Prepositions Can You Use in a Row?

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."

By
Marcia Riefer Johnston, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #608

What’s a Verb Particle?

Any fish that find themselves pouring in do so by virtue of a phrasal verb. Just like a phrasal preposition, a phrasal verb (such as “pour in”) is a verb made up of multiple words. Each phrasal verb has a main verb (such as “pour”) and one or more small following words (such as “in”)—that work together to convey a single idiomatic meaning. 

The phrasal verb “pour in” has the idiomatic meaning “flow rapidly in a steady stream.”

People often describe phrasal verbs as including a main verb plus one or more “prepositions.” The problem is that thinking of a word as a preposition in cases where it’s not behaving like a typical preposition can be confusing. That kind of confusion is exactly what Morgan experienced in contemplating Steinbeck’s sentence. If you want to avoid the confusion, you can call these words particles instead of prepositions when they’re part of a verb.    

A phrasal verb creates meaning as a unit even if the main verb is separated from its particle or particles. For example, in the sentence “The student took the idea in,” even though “took” and “in” aren’t next to each other, the verb is “took in,” meaning “absorbed.”

English has thousands of phrasal verbs. Some have multiple meanings. For example, “to check out” might mean “to look at” (“Check out that elephant”), or it might mean “to go to a cashier” (“Here’s my credit card; I’m ready to check out"), or it might mean “to exit mentally” (“I’m going to put on Netflix and check out tonight”). “Put on” might mean “don clothes,” “josh a person,” “apply makeup,” or “play recorded music.”

The website UsingEnglish.com offers a quiz that contains some 2,000 phrasal verbs—a mere sampling—based on 171 main verbs. In this quiz, the main verb “get” alone spawns 167 phrasal verbs like these: “get back,” “get ahead of,” “get along with,” and “get over.

You probably use phrasal verbs all the time. They give our language color and make it endearingly flexible—even as they make it maddening to learn.

What’s an Adverb?

Words like “in,” “out,” and “of,” which sometimes act as prepositions and other times act as verb particles, may even take a notion to act as adverbs. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs commonly tell when, where, or how something happens.

For example, although the word “down” often serves as a preposition or a verb particle, it serves as neither in the sentence “The tired dockworker sat down.” Here, “down” is not a preposition (since it has no object), and it’s not a verb particle (since the verb has no idiomatic meaning). “Down” simply describes the manner of the sitting. In this case, “down” is an adverb.

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