Tag Archives: preposition

Because language

First published on BoldFace, the official blog of EAC’s Toronto branch. Copyedited by Valerie Borden.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.

Really?

Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because.

Take a sentence. Any sentence. Even something that is used as a sentence but has no verb. Hey! There were some right there! Yes, we can and do use expressions such as “No” and “Hey, free candy!” and “The higher, the fewer” and “CAR!” in place of complete sentences. Since we can normally turn a complete sentence into a subordinate or coordinate clause, we should be able to use those other expressions the same way, right? Well, let’s just stick them in and see what happens: “I thought I could do it, but no.” “I’m dieting today, except hey, free candy!” “I climbed and discovered that the higher, the fewer.” “We scampered off the street because CAR!”

Do some of those seem more jarring than others? They well may. But for that very reason, they are more humorously effective. Consider this bit from a 1987 Saturday Night Live episode: “If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.” That appears to have been one of the seeds of the because [expression] trend that is increasingly popular because jarringly humorous: “I was wired last night because mmm sugar.” “They want to bomb it to the Stone Age because FREEDOM!”

This is not the same as the literary usage seen in “increasingly popular because jarring”—that’s an established predicative usage with an implied “it is”—but that may have had a slight influence. Rather, the current use seems to take the whole expression and plop it in as a substitute for a structured clause, and to do so as a deliberate syntactic mirroring of the leap of logic that it presents. It does not actually turn because into a preposition; the noun is what is converted. We see similar structures with other conjunctions—“We are hungry, therefore PIZZA!” and a favourite of mine from more than a decade ago, “You make good points but have failed to consider that bite me.”

What does turn because into a preposition is the reanalysis of this construction by newer, naïve users. This is, in fact, how syntactic change tends to happen: for fun or convenience, speakers of a language modify a structure or turn of phrase; then a subsequent generation reinterprets that usage as a different, easier-to-assimilate structure. You will probably agree that because as a preposition is easier to assimilate into a standard grammar of English than a noun as a complete subordinate clause. So now we can see children using because where their parents would have used because of: “I liked it because the ponies.” And this usage does not seem to draw on the substitute-for-reasoning effect.

You may not like this new usage; it’s not what you’re used to. But it’s language change, and you’re seeing it in action. It will be a while before it is accepted in formal usage, though. Expect sticklers to be routinely purple in the face about it by, say, AD 2050.

There’s much more to be said and read on this topic. I direct your attention to the following fine articles:

preposition, position

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.

Indecent prepositions

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:

adposition
anteposition
apposition
circumposition
composition
contraposition
counterposition
decomposition
deposition
disposition
electrodeposition
exposition
extraposition
imposition
indisposition
interposition
juxtaposition
malposition
opposition
out-position
oviposition
photocomposition
postposition
predisposition
preposition
pre-position
presupposition
proposition
recomposition
redeposition
redisposition
reimposition
reposition
retroposition
subterposition
superimposition
superposition
supposition
supraposition
transposition

And then there are all the common collocations of position, among which are these:

starting position
scoring position
geographical position
defensive position
take up position
jostle for position
in position
into position
out of position
sleeping position
fetal position
strong position
favourable position
precarious position
bargaining position
trading position
put you in an awkward position
in a position to help
philosophical position
official position
first position, second position, third position, fourth position, fifth position
privileged position
social position
full-time position, part-time position, salaried position, senior position, junior position
sex 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?