The Prepositional Phrase

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Meaning Prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase is a group of words without a finite verb introduced by a preposition.

Structure of a Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition a noun or noun phrase or a pronoun as object of the preposition.
Structure; Preposition + Noun/Noun phrase

P + N/NP
The noun or the noun phrase that comes after the preposition may or nay not have post modifiers.

Examples;

a. In the classroom

b. By the car

c. Under the chair in the car

d. beside John

e. Next to him etc.

In the examples above, we notice that the first example, ‘in the classroom‘ is introduced by a preposition, ‘in’ followed by the noun phrase, ‘the classroom‘. ‘The classroom’ has a grammatical function as ‘object of the preposition‘.

The second example, ‘by the car’ has the same structure, a preposition, ‘by’ and a noun phrase, ‘the car’ as object of the preposition.

The third example, ‘under the chair in the car’, has a relatively different structure, we have a preposition, ‘under’ and a noun phrase, ‘the chair is the car’, as object of the preposition. However, the noun phrase equally has a post modifier in its structure which happens to be a prepositional phrase, ‘in the car’. However, this prepositional phrase is only a post modifier, and therefore, forms part of the noun phrase, which functions as object of the preposition, ‘by’.

The fourth example, ‘beside John’, is introduced by a preposition, ‘beside’ and a noun, ‘John’ as object of the preposition.

The fifth example, ‘next to him’, is introduced by a complex preposition, ‘next to’, followed by a pronoun, ‘him’, as object of the preposition.

Functions of the Prepositional Phrase

Grammatically, when a prepositional phrase is used in a sentence or context, it may have a grammatical function as any one of the following structures;

A. Adjectival phrase
B. Adverbial phrase
C. Noun phrase
D. Infinitive phrase/Non-finite clause/to-infinitive nominal clause

A. Adjectival phrase; A prepositional phrase may be called an adjectival phrase if it performs the function adjectives play in a sentence or context. A prepositional phrase is called an adjectival phrase when it comes immediately after a noun and makes the meaning of the noun more specific by describing it.

Usage Examples

i. The children in the building are playing.
In the example above, ‘in the building’, is an expression that gives us more information about the noun, ‘children’. If we say, ‘the children’, someone will be tempted to ask, which children?
The expression, ‘in the building’ answers that question. So, ‘in the building’, gives more information about the noun, ‘children’, hence, an adjectival phrase.

G. Name; Adjectival phrase
Function; Qualifies/describes the noun, ‘children’

ii. The man under the tree is a teacher.
G. Name; Adjectival phrase
Function; Qualifies or describes the noun, ‘man’

NOTE; We call it an adjectival phrase and not an adjective phrase because it is not an adjective in form, but it is behaving like an adjective, that is why it is called adjectival phrase, therefore, it is important to note that an adjectival phrase and an adjective phrase are not the same.

B. Adverbial phrase; A prepositional phrase may also function as an adverbial phrase if it performs the function of an adjective in a sentence or context. By performing the function of an adjective, we mean when it modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. We learnt that adverbs provide information about WHEN, that is the time an action happens, WHERE, the place an action happens, HOW, the manner an action happens etc.

Usage Examples

i. The children stay in the building.

Question; Where does the children stay?
Answer; in the building.
So, ‘in the building’ answers the question, WHERE?
Even though, ‘in the building’ is a prepositional phrase, it is used in this sentence as an adverbial phrase indicating or expressing PLACE.

G. Name; Adverbial phrase (of place)
Function; modifies the verb, ‘stay’

ii. The students arrived in the morning.
G. Name; Adverbial phrase (of time)
Function; modifies the verb, ‘arrived’

iii. The man came in a hurry.
G. Name; Adverbial phrase (of manner)
Function; modifies the verb, ‘came’

Positional Difference between a Prepositional Phrase as an Adjectival Phrase and a Prepositional Phrase as an Adverbial Phrase

Apart from the functional differences, positional differences can be used to differentiate a prepositional phrase which functions as an adjectival phrase, and a prepositional phrase which functions as an adverbial phrase. Positionally, a prepositional phrase which functions as an adjectival phrase comes immediately after a noun in the structure of a sentence, whereas a prepositional phrase which functions as an adverbial phrase comes mostly after the verb in the structure of a sentence.

Usage Examples

a. The lady in the car is a billionaire.

‘In the car’ comes immediately after a noun, ‘car’, this suggests in terms of the positional distinction that, it is a prepositional phrase having the function of an adjective, hence, an adjectival phrase, and very so, it is an adjectival phrase.

b. The lady is in the car.
‘in the car’, in the example above comes immediately after the verb, ‘is’, which suggests it is a prepositional phrase having the function of an adverb, hence, an adverbial phrase, and indeed, it is an adverbial phrase.

C. Noun phrase; A prepositional phrase may be called a noun phrase if it performs any of the functions of a noun in a sentence or context.

There are only two instances where a prepositional phrase can be called a noun phrase;

I. A prepositional phrase can be called a noun phrase in an instance where the indirect object in the structure of a clause comes after the direct object.
In such a situation, the indirect object is introduced depending on the type of verb used by either TO or FOR.

Usage Examples

i. The man bought a car for his girlfriend.

G. Name; Noun phrase
Function; Indirect object of the verb, ‘bought’

ii. The students wrote an apology letter to their teacher.
G. Name; Noun phrase
Function; Indirect object of the verb, ‘wrote’

II. A prepositional phrase can be called a noun phrase in an instance where the subject in an active sentence becomes the object of its passive equivalent, in such context, the object in the passive sentence is introduced by the preposition ‘by’.

Usage Examples

Active; Amina ate the food.
Passive; The food was eaten by Amina.
G. Name; Noun phrase
Function; Object of the verb phrase, ‘was eaten’

Active; The man teaches the children.
Passive; The children are taught by the man.
G. Name; Noun phrase
Function; object of the verb phrase, ‘are taught’

D. Infinitive phrase/Non-finite Clause/To-infinitive Nominal Clause; Readers, take note of this particular aspect of prepositional phrase because it has sparked a lot of controversy amongst language users, teachers and learners.

Examples of Prepositional Phrases that can be called any of the above;

a. To insult elders is not good.

b. Kola wanted to be termed good and well-behaved. (WASSCE JULY, 2019, Q. 6 g.)

c. To wash every weekend could be difficult.

A prepositional phrase may be called any of the above(infinitive phrase, noun phrase, non-finite clause or to-infinitive nominal clause) depending on the level of learning;

S. H. S. LEVEL; At the senior high school level, this type of prepositional phrases are called; NOUN PHRASE or INFINITIVE PHRASE. Language teachers at this level should take note.

Usage Example

Kola wanted to be termed good and well-behaved. (WASSCE JULY, 2019, Q. 6 g.)

G. Name; Noun phrase or infinitive phrase
Function; Object of the verb, ‘wanted’

The reason why this type of structures is treated as a phrase is the fact that at the SHS level, a phrase is defined as a group of words without a finite verb that makes an incomplete thought.

However, this definition needs to be reviewed because it presents some grammatical technicalities in the sense that, a clause has a verb form which could be finite or non-finite, that is why we have finite clauses and non-finite clauses.
This could be an interesting research area for pure language students.

UNIVERSITY LEVEL; This type of structures at the university level, being it undergraduate or post-graduate language studies, are treated as clauses.

They fall under non-finite type of nominal clauses, that is why they are generally referred to as, TO-INFINITIVE Nominal Clauses

So the example;

Kola wanted to be termed good and well-behaved.

In a purely syntactic sense of the language,
‘to be termed good and well-behaved’ is a TO-INFINITIVE NOMINAL CLAUSE.

The function however, remains ‘Object of the verb, ‘wanted’.

a. To insult elders is not good.

G. Name; To-infinitive nominal clause

Function; Subject of the verb, ‘is’

One can simply call these structures too, Nominal clause instead of To-infinitive nominal clause.

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