I’ll start this word tasting note with a poem from Songs of Love and Grammar (71 poems with this sensibility, nicely laid out and illustrated, just $12 on lulu.com, or $3.99 for the ebook). It’s about something just about everyone has a position on.
by James Harbeck
I met a buxom grammatician
and said I’d like her out to take;
back she came with proposition:
in let’s stay and out let’s make.
I proceeded with elation
her proposal up to take,
and so prepared my habitation –
out put cat, up bed did make.
In she came and, around stalking,
switfly over she did take
and declared, with eyebrow cocking,
that me over she would make.
Up she tied me then and there
and smoothly off my clothes did take
and while I lay with syntax bare
she with my wallet off did make.
The upshot of my disquisition?
It is how down not to be shaken:
accept indecent preposition
and you might well in be taken.
The poem’s actually a bit of cheat, in that many of the ostensible prepositions are actually parts of phrasal verbs: take out, make out, take up, make up, take over, make over, tie up, take off, make off, shake down, take in. And some of the remainder are really adverbial uses. But I’m not of the disposition to reposition my composition in the face of opposition; the central proposition remains, that such transpositions are unnecessary impositions.
What is a preposition, anyway? It’s not something that pre-positions something as you would, say, a cushion near someone prone to passing out. It just comes before (pre) a noun phrase and says something about the position, physical or conceptual, of the things on either side of the preposition. (Sometimes the following noun phrase is moved and/or deleted. The preposition doesn’t have to move. You may not like it, but you have to put up with it. It’s just something you have to put up with. There is no rule against it, just a common superstition with no basis in actual authoritative usage.)
Oh, for the record, since there are actually many people who think this (some of them giving “answers” at online “answer” forums): is is not a preposition. It’s a verb.
There are also postpositions. The difference between a preposition and a postposition is the position, of course – a postposition comes at the end of a word (or noun phrase), whereas a preposition comes at the beginning. One might say that a postposition is the positron to a preposition’s electron. We don’t have postpositions in English; if we did, we might say things like your head above or this table on rather than above your head or on this table.
But, on the other hand, what postposition and preposition have in common is, of course, position. This word, originating in the Latin positio “act of placing”, which comes from the past participial stem of ponere “put” (which is also the fons et origo of all those words with pose in them, plus some pon words such as exponent), occupies a central position in English – actually a final position in the at least 40 words formed on it, but the point is that, in spite of its obvious morphology (pos+ition), it is effectively a basic word in modern English.
Did I say at least 40 words have the form [x]position? Yep. Here’s a list I’ve made with help from the Oxford English Dictionary:
And then there are all the common collocations of position, among which are these:
take up position
jostle for position
out of position
put you in an awkward position
in a position to help
first position, second position, third position, fourth position, fifth position
full-time position, part-time position, salaried position, senior position, junior position
apply for the position, the position has been filled
in a unique position
Possession may be nine points of the law, but position is a pretty good fraction of the language. In Visual Thesaurus, it’s connected to no fewer than 16 nodes – that’s 16 different valences of meaning, though they’re all connected to the same basic sense of being somewhere. No other word can fill in for it in every position: not place (you may adjust your position in a chair, but not your place), not posture (you can’t ascend to a high posture in an organization), not point or situation or role.
And what position does position take in your mouth? Mostly a frontal one. It starts on the lips, and the other three consonants are on or near the tip of the tongue; of the three vowels, one (the stressed one in the middle) is high front, one is reduced mid central, and the other – the first one – may be a back vowel when given full value, but, like the final vowel, it’s almost always reduced to a neutral mid front-central one or sometimes deleted entirely (“pzishn”). The consonants alternate between voiceless and voiced; the middle two are fricatives, but in slightly different places, one buzzing and one shushing; it ends in the nasal, which also nasalizes the preceding vowel and sometimes pretty much merges with it. (Try this: say “sh” and hold it, and while holding it open your nose and add voice so it’s basically a “n” with the tongue not quite touching the tip – you see how you can shift the sound without really shifting position, if you’re lazy enough.)
And the shape of the word? Eight letters; one descender, one ascender, two dots; almost-mirroring o i io letters. It’s not an especially fast word to write, what with the dots and cross. And yet this borrowing from Latin has become a staple of English – on wordcount.org, which counts frequencies in the British National Corpus, it’s the 395th most common word in the language, just after woman and real and just before centre and south. Pretty decent, eh?