Trying to understand what a preposition is. Wikipedia gives some hints (adpositions are the general case of preposition/postposition/circumposition):

  • ...Adpositions are classed as syntactic elements....
  • ...Adpositions are among the most frequently occurring words in languages that have them....
  • ...Many simple adpositions are derived from complex forms (e.g., with + in → within, by + side → beside) through grammaticalisation....
  • ...Adpositions typically have noun phrases as complements....
  • ...Adpositions can be used to express a wide range of semantic relations between their complement and the rest of the context. The relations expressed may be spatial (denoting location or direction), temporal (denoting position in time), or relations expressing comparison, content, agent, instrument, means, manner, cause, purpose, reference, etc....
  • ...Most common adpositions are highly polysemous (they have various different meanings)....
  • ...In some contexts (as in the case of some phrasal verbs) the choice of adposition may be determined by another element in the construction or be fixed by the construction as a whole. Here the adposition may have little independent semantic content of its own, and there may be no clear reason why the particular adposition is used rather than another. Examples of such expressions are: ...dispense with, listen to, insist on, proud of, good at....

So basically, sometimes the rules for how you combine a preposition with another word, like listen to, is arbitrary. Wondering if it is actually arbitrary, or if there is some history to it or evolution of it.

Examples include:

in spite of
with respect to
except for
by dint of

From what I've seen, there doesn't seem to be a clear definition of what a preposition actually is. As opposed to nouns (things), and verbs (actions). It has been very hard to try and figure out what exactly is meant by the word "of" in "My friend of many years" or "to" in "I went to the store", or even "from" in "The food from the store". I mean, I get the basics, I get the definition of it and that "to" references a place, and "of" is some relationship. But I don't get what it means a deeper level.

Wondering if there are languages without prepositions (and what that looks like when translated to English), or if not, how they got there.

Sidenote, that is confusing, verb in Latin means word, so I guess I need to adjust my definition of verb.

  • 2
    There is some history; plenty of history. Every word, however, has its own individual history, which has to be traced independently. And prepositions are intimately connected with grammatical cases, both historically and semantically.
    – jlawler
    Sep 1, 2018 at 17:03
  • "verb in Latin means word, so I guess I need to adjust my definition of verb." why do you need to do that? Sep 19, 2018 at 17:47
  • Oh was just thinking if a word is a verb, then phew, gotta get much more general in thinking about the language stuff :)
    – Lance
    Sep 19, 2018 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


A preposition is a non-phrasal syntactic element which precedes a nominal phrase. A postposition is a non-phrasal syntactic elements which follows a nominal phrase. It differs from a prefix in being a separate word, but the criteria for calling something a prefix versus a word are language- and theory-specific (best dealt with as a separate question). The function of a preposition is to express a relationship between the nominal phrase and some other elements. There are many languages without prepositions, for example Japanese and Quechua. There is nothing deeper to prepositions, in general. One can, of course, ask focused questions about the syntax or semantics of a particular preposition in a specific language. You can read about prepositions and postpositions in North Saami here (in the examples, they put the preposition / postposition in quotes, rather than type-face shifting, for computational reasons).


The best resource I have found on prepositions is The Preposition Project, see: http://www.clres.com/prepositions.html It will be a tremendous resource to help you understand how prepositions are disambiguated.

If you are confused about prepositions vs particles, and their use in phrasal verbs, consider the following ESL book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1438009747/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_2oQIBbTRMCC1V

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