In English, I've found examples of two consecutive adverbial prepositional phrases both modifying the rest of a verb group, e.g.,

"He won't go out of the town because of the animals."

"She won't stay in the town because of the people."

I've found examples of two or more adnominal prepositional phrases, the first of which modifies the rest of an NP with the second and subsequent phrases modifying the nominal complement in the previous prepositional phrase. e.g.,

"the bear behind the shed near the rock opposite our garage"

"the squirrels in the branches above the car with those old-fashioned fins"

But I haven't found any example of an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying another prepositional phrase in the same sense that, for example, a word for "strangely" could modify a word for "quickly" in some language other than English to produce a phrase that means "with strange quickness".

I'm asking this question to help me develop my conlang, in which the distinction between adnominal and adverbial prepositional phrases is marked grammatically.

  • 1
    Just for the record, ‘strangely quickly’ would (or at least could) also mean ‘with strange quickness’ in English. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 8:17

1 Answer 1


Complements versus Modifiers

Fist of all, it is useful to distinguish preposition phrases (PPs) which occur as Complements from those which occur as Modifiers. Consider the example below:

  1. He won't go out of the town because of the animals.

Here the. PP out of the town is not a Modifier, but the Locative Complement of the verb go. The PP because of the animals, in contrast, is a Modifier either of the clause He won't go out of the town or, alternatively, of the verb phrase go out of the town. The two have different interpretations. The former means the same as:

  1. Because of the animals, he won't go out of town.

The latter, where the negation would scope over the because-PP would mean the same as:

  1. It is not because of the animals that he will go out of town.

So there is no occurrence of one PP modifying another here.

Prepositions with PP Complements

Prepositions themselves often take PP Complements:

  1. away [from the crowds]

  2. down [the road] [from the post office]

Preposition phrases with PP Modifiers

There are two main types of PP Modifier within preposition phrase structure in English. We see Modifiers which occur before the Head preposition:

  1. I was stationed [over in France].

Here over must be a Modifier, as station specifically licences in-phrases, but not, for example, to-phrases:

  1. *I was stationed [over to France].

According to The Cambridge grammar of the English language (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002 p. 645) preposition phrases also occur as post-head Modifier within PP structure:

  1. [Downstairs [in the kitchen]] were several other guests.

Here they say that in the kitchen is a post-head Modifier of the preposition *downstairs, which they claim can be shown by constituency tests.

So, in short, yes, in at least one language (and one suspects, many others), adposition phrases can appear as Modifiers within a larger adposition phrase.

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    It seems noteworthy – and more than a bit suspicious – that every example that might fit the bill here is what would traditionally have been labelled an adverb or a plain preposition, rather than a full PP. Restricting it to ‘traditional PPs’ (preposition + complement), I can’t come up with any examples that don’t just become chains (e.g., ‘down the stairs in the kitchen’ or ‘over the Channel in France’ can hardly be said to be single PPs). I also don’t see why over in over in France must be a modifying PP instead of a modifying preposition? Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 18:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Just like "we traditionally thought the earth was flat" or "we traditionally kept slaves" or "we traditionally smoked to keep our lungs healthy" aren't good arguments for thinking or doing those things now, thus it is here. Come up with ten good reasons why over is an adverb in those examples, and I'll happliy respond to that point ;) I don't believe there to be anything 'suspicious' about saying smoking damages your lungs. In any case OP is already asking from a modern point of view (cf their examples with because). Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 19:31
  • Not sure how any of that relates to what I said..? I wasn’t suggesting we go back to the traditional terminology, but I’m not sure how to otherwise separate out ‘real’ PPs (by which I mean ones consisting of preposition + complement), since most prepositions can be PPs on their own as well. The way I read this question and the earlier one (which seems to have been deleted in favour of this one), the asker was specifically looking for preposition + complement PPs, which is exactly the type of structure that doesn’t seem to be allowed to modify other PPs, at least not pre-modify. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 20:27
  • @JanusBahsJacquet That was what I thought you were saying, so perhaps I misunderstood. Re the P/PP issue, that just depends where you pay your taxes, as JL would say. I take it that you'd view all the way over in France to have a PP all the way over in it, given that you don't regard over as an adverb? It's quite common, in English, for there to be constraints on pre-head Modifiers. For example, attributive nouns resist plural inflections (though not genitive ones), and adjectives with post-head dependents cannot pre-modify nouns: *an afraid of spiders clown, for example. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:18
  • This sort of stuff is not really my forte, but no, I don’t think I would. I’d consider in to be the head, modified by all the way (sort of pseudo-adverbial NP?) and over (bare preposition), and with in France as its complement. It’s a fair point that there are often restrictions on pre-head modifiers. In this case, it would appear that PPs can modify other PPs except that they can’t have complements. I guess that’s why it feels ‘suspicious’ to me – preposition + complement PPs are sort of the archetypal PP. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:55

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