Function words


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

A composite preposition is indivisible both syntactically and semantically, that is, no element of it can be varied, abbreviated, or extended according to the normal rules of syntax. Thus in the composite preposition for the sake of neither the definite article nor the preposition can be replaced by words of similar meaning



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Function words (or grammatical words or synsemantic words or structure-class words) are words that have little lexical meaning or have ambiguous meaning, but instead serve to express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker. They signal the structural relationships that words have to one another and are the glue that holds sentences together. Thus, they serve as important elements to the structures of sentences

A preposition is a function word indicating a relation between two notional words. Its semantic significance becomes evident when different prepositions are used with one and the same word, as in

Although the tradition of differentiating prepositions from other word classes (conjunctions, and in some cases adverbs) is well established, it is not always easy to draw the border-line; nearly all one-word prepositions can also function as adverbs or as conjunctions, their status being determined only syntactically. A few words - after, before, since, for (with the change of meaning), behind - may function not only as adverbs, adverbial postpositions, or conjunctions, but also as prepositions. Compare the following groups of sentences:

Most of the common English prepositions are simple in structure:

out, in, for, on, about, but (в значении кроме, исключая), against.

Derived prepositions are formed from other words, mainly participles:

excepting, concerning, considering, following, including, during, depending, granted, past, except.

There are also many
compound prepositions:

within, outside, upon, onto, throughout, alongside, wherewith, whereof, whereupon, herein, hereafter, withall.

Composite or phrasal prepositions include a word of another class and one or two prepositions, as in by virtue of, but for, because of, by means of, instead of, in lieu of, prior to, on account of, abreast of, thanks to, with reference to, opposite to, in front of, for the sake of, in view of, in spite of, in preference to, in unison with, for the sake of, except for, due to, in addition to, with regard to, on behalf of, in line with, at variance with.

A composite preposition is indivisible both syntactically and semantically, that is, no element of it can be varied, abbreviated, or extended according to the normal rules of syntax. Thus in the composite preposition
for the sake of neither the definite article nor the preposition can be replaced by words of similar meaning.

Semantically prepositions form a varied group of words. Most of them are polysemantic
(in, to, for, at, from), their original meaning having become vague, others have retained their full meaning and are accordingly monosemantic (down, over, across, off, till, until, save, near, along, among, despite, during, etc.). This also applies to prepositions borrowed from Latin: versus, via, plus, minus.

Relations expressed by prepositions may be of various types:

1) agentive -
the letter was sent by a friend of mine;

2) attributive - a
drawing in crayon, the people in question (люди, о которых идет речь);

3) possessive and partial relations -
one of my friends, the roof of the house, a glass of brandy, a decline in 

waste, a rise in production;

4) relation indicating origin, material, or source -
a girl from Brighton, made of gold:

5) objective relation –
don’t be angry with me, I'II look into the matter, to work at a book, to speak on the

matter (about the matter, of the matter);

6) relation indicating to whom the action is directed -
to show it to him, to give lessons to the children;

7) instrumental relation -
to write with a pencil, to cut with a knife;

8) relation of subordination -
to be secretary to a Minister;

9) relation defining the sphere or field of activity -
the country depends on exports for its food; Tom is good

at football;

10) relation of involvement or association -
to cooperate with somebody; coffee with cream, to compare this 

with that, to get involved in a discussion;

11) respective relation -
he is big for a youngster, I did not know I had a blackguard for a son;

12) relation of resemblance -
he is like his father;

13) relation of dissociation and differentiation -
to disburden oneself of one’s past; to be devoid of 

something, to disentangle oneself from something; to know something from something, to deduce from 


14) various adverbial relations:

a) of manner, means, style and language -
 with diligence, by telegram, in slang, in bad print, in a neat


in good style, in brief;

b) of purpose or aim -
to send for the doctor, he did it for fun, the police were after the criminal;

c) temporal relations. These may be subdivided into those denoting precedence, sequence, duration, etc. -

in good time, at 5 o’clock, before the dawn;

d) of cause or reason -
I did it out of fear, through his negligence, I despise you for this;

e) spacial relation, including directional relation -
 past the gate, by the window, across the river, at the


) concessive relation - in spite of the bad weather, despite our protests, for all his attempts, with all her


The relations enumerated above to a great degree depend on the meaning of the words connected by prepositions. Sometimes the relation indicated by a preposition is too abstract to be defined in words, as its use is often figurative or metaphorical, as in:

^ He broke away from them on some vague pretext.

The role of the preposition is difficult to define when it introduces predicatives, when its meaning is

in the capasity of’, ‘in the role of’, ‘having the quality of’.

As a friend he was admirable, but one cannot praise him as a husband.

His career
as a lawyer was short.

We regard him
as a fool.

She went to the ball with her aunt
as chaperone.

When a preposition is used figuratively, the concept expressed by the preposition may be so blurred or weak that one preposition may be replaced by another without any essential alteration to the relation between the words. Thus the following words may be used with different prepositions without change of meaning:

from, to

against, at, towards

against, for, to

along, down, over the centuries

Words of the same root can be used with different prepositions:

to pride oneself
on, to be proud of, pride in;

Normally a preposition stands between two words to express the relation between them. However, there are cases when one of the two words with which the preposition combines either takes the initial position or is not used at all. In these cases the preposition is attached to the remaining word. It occurs in:

1) special questions, both direct and indirect:

What are you driving

Who shall I send it

What train shall I go

I asked him who the flowers were

However, the preposition may precede the interrogative or relative words. In this case the sentence sounds more formal.

^ To whom shall I send this?

By what train shall I go?

He did not know
to whom he should turn for help.

The preposition precedes the interrogative when the preposition forms a stock phrase with a noun.

In what respect was he suspicious?

To what extent is this true?

In abbreviated sentences and clauses consisting only of a preposition and an interrogative word the preposition normally precedes it.

- But
to whom?

In colloquial style the preposition is at the end.

    Who by?
    “Apologize?” she said. “What

2) some clauses beginning with conjunctive and relative pronouns and in subordinate contact clauses:

What I am thinking
of is how he got there.

The man I told you
about is my relative.

The girl he is in love
with studies at the University.

It is his talents he relies

In formal style however, the preposition precedes the connective:

The man
about whom I told you is a relative of mine.

3) exclamatory sentences:

What a nice place to live

4) passive constructions:

The doctor was immediately sent

How strange it is to be talked
to in this way.

5) some syntactical patterns with the infinitive or gerund:

He is difficult to deal


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