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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, Writing for,
Episode #608

Preposition, Verb Particle, or Adverb: The Quick and Dirty Tip

If you aren’t sure whether a word is acting as a preposition, a verb particle, or an adverb, ask yourself if the verb’s meaning is idiomatic or literal. 

  • If the word contributes to a verb’s idiomatic meaning—like the “in” in “pour in”— you can call it a verb particle. 
  • If the word’s meaning is literal—for example, if you were to talk about playing in a net—you can call it a preposition …
  • … unless there’s no object following the word—like the “in” in “Don’t fall in”—in which case you can call it an adverb. 

In the three examples above (“pour in,” “play in,” and “fall in”), the word “in” plays a different role each time: now a preposition, now a verb particle, now an adverb. 

Let’s look at another example. This time we’ll stick with “ran out” each time. 

Example 1—“Aardvark ran out of the boat.” 

You can picture feet hitting the ground. Aardvark literally ran. In this case, “ran out” is not a phrasal verb because it’s not idiomatic. So it doesn’t make sense to call “out” a verb particle. Here, “out” is part of the phrasal preposition “out of” in the prepositional phrase “out of the boat.”

Example 2—“Aardvark ran out of boats.” 

In this case, feet are not involved. “Ran out” is a phrasal verb, an idiom meaning “deplete the supply” of something. In this case, we can call “out” a verb particle.

Example 3—“Aardvark ran out.” 

We’re back to a literal meaning of the verb. Since “ran out” is not idiomatic, it doesn’t make sense to call “out” a verb particle. And many people wouldn’t call it a preposition either because it doesn’t have a grammatical object. Aardvark simply ran out. Period. The word “out” indicates the direction or manner of the running. In that kind of sentence, you can call “out” an adverb.

Note that we’re choosing our words carefully here. Not everybody agrees on these categories. The point is, it’s sometimes helpful to classify words by their functions—which vary from sentence to sentence—rather than assigning them unchanging labels.

End a Sentence With Any Word You Like

In case you’re wondering about the so-called rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, wonder no more. This “rule” has been called a “durable superstition” (2), a “remnant of Latin grammar” (3), and (in another Grammar Girl episode) “one of the top ten grammar myths.” At least one editor reports seeing many a “tangled sentence due to reluctance to end a sentence with a preposition.”

The same goes for verb particles and adverbs. 

So in your sentences, feel free to choose whichever words sound most natural to wrap up with. 

Summary

This article’s title—How Many Prepositions Can You Use in a Row?—is a trick question. If you think you have two or more prepositions in a row, look closely. Words that we usually think of as prepositions—words like “in,” “out,” and “of”—may act as simple prepositions, parts of complex prepositions, verb particles, or adverbs. 

Now that we’ve covered this topic’s ins and outs—oh yeah, “in” and “out” can be nouns, too—it’s time to pack it in and check out.

That segment was written by Marcia Riefer Johnston, author of “Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build From Them).” Marcia blogs at Writing.Rocks

References

(1) Klammer, Thomas P., Schulz, Muriel R., and Della Volpe, Angela. Analyzing English Grammar, fifth edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007, p. 117. 

(2) Johnson, Edward D. “The Handbook of Good English: Revised and Updated” (New York: Facts On File, 1991), 386.

(3) Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s “Modern English Usage,” fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 723.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Marcia Riefer Johnston, Writing for Grammar Girl
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