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Sorry if this is a basic question, but I am in the weeds playing with language and finally encountered confusion when digging into prepositions in English. It appears to me that prepositions are adverbs when there is nothing after the "preposition"-like word, but otherwise it is a preposition?

  • up
    • adverb: he jumped up
    • preposition: he jumped up a flight of steps
  • about
    • adverb: they were floundering about
    • preposition: they were thinking about you
  • behind
    • adverb: he ran behind
    • preposition: he ran behind the trees

From google definitions:

  • Adverb: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc..
  • Preposition: a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause.

So I get an adverb modifies a verb (and I guess an adjective or other adverb, kind of confusing nomenclature). A preposition as you were saying precedes something (only a noun and pronoun)? But a preposition can also come after a verb, like the adverbs. So what exactly is the difference between adverbs and prepositions then? Do these categories partially overlap or something? How should I make sense of this?

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    The easiest way is to say to yourself is this little word part of an actual phrase? Or does it just come after the verb and is unattached to anything else? That would make it an adverb or phrasal verb.
    – Lambie
    Jul 23, 2023 at 19:18
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    The general current position would be that those are all prepositions in all your examples, not adverbs. Some prepositions can form prepositional phrases on their own, without their complement (‘object’), and some can be used as particles in phrasal verbs, but they’re all prepositions. Jul 23, 2023 at 22:34
  • I agree, prepositions with elided objects are still prepositions.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 24, 2023 at 3:26
  • No, actually they can go through a ceremony in which they renounce prepositionhood. In that moment, they become true adverbs. Like this ceremony for nouns modifying other nouns.
    – jlawler
    Jul 24, 2023 at 16:52

1 Answer 1

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A preposition comes before a nominal element, as in your examples; it is unrelated to the verb. Prepositional phrases usually have an adjunct role in the sentence, giving additional information regarding time/place/direction, depending on the preposition. An adjunct in English usually follows a verb, but can also be at some other place in the sentence:

Up the stairs he ran.

There is also an ambiguity between an adjunct and a nominal modifier; a famous example in linguistics being

I saw the man with the telescope.

where with the telescope can either be an adjunct modifying saw, or a nominal modifier linked to the man.

To make it even more complicated, you also have particles which are part of phrasal verbs, as in end up, or break out. These always follow the verb, though sometimes a noun phrase can be placed between them, as in

She shut the computer down.

Here, shut down is a phrasal verb, and down a particle rather than a preposition.

Adverbs usually modify the verb in other ways, and more common examples would be

He walked slowly.

I will arrive tomorrow.

I would agree with the other comments that up in jumped up is still a preposition, unless it's the phrasal verb a jumped up person (ie someone who is arrogant etc).

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