Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dummy Prepositions

Posted by Neal on October 25, 2012

I dropped by a weekly discussion group at OSU yesterday, to hear Carl Pollard talk about the version of categorial grammar he’s currently developing. When it came to prepositions, he made a distinction between prepositional phrases that actually referred to a location (as in I saw a mysterious figure on the roof); and those that might as well just be plain noun phrases for all the meaning the preposition contributes. The example Carl gave was depend, which takes an on-PP as a complement, as in depend on me. He proposed not even calling on me in this example a prepositional phrase; instead, its syntactic category (its “tecto” in Carl’s jargon) would be simply be an “On Phrase”.

It can be tricky identifying these “dummy” prepositions. It’s easy enough to discard clear cases of meaningful prepositions, in verb phrases like walk to school, but it gets harder as the prepositionals become metaphorical, in phrases such as stare at him. Furthermore, you have to avoid “intransitive prepositions” (sometimes called particles), in phrases like tie up the prisoner. You might mistake up for a dummy preposition because it certainly doesn’t seem to contribute any spatial meaning. The trouble is that it also doesn’t take an object. Although it might look like the prisoner is the object, of up, if you replace the prisoner with a pronoun, you quickly realize that up isn’t taking it as an object. If it were, a phrase like *tie up him would be grammatical, just like stare at him is. Instead, the phrasal verb has to “wrap” around its pronoun direct object: tie him up. So to get a true dummy preposition, you want a preposition that contributes no spatial meaning, and also takes an object. The on after depend meets these requirements.

To further demonstrate that this kind of meaningless PP was a different thing than an ordinary PP, Carl ran it through a classic ambiguity test (which I’ve described here), having a single on-PP function in both ways at once:

It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend.

I laughed, and Carl said, “I knew you’d get that!” And to fellow syntactician Bob Levine, who was turning around in his seat to look at me: “Neal can coordinate anything!”

“That sentence wasn’t grammatical for you, was it?” Bob asked.

“No,” I answered. “That’s why I’m laughing!”

Gotta love that linguist humor. Where else would It’s on Mt. Everest that I live and depend work as a comedy one-liner? If you’ve got some others, let’s hear them!

11 Responses to “Dummy Prepositions”

  1. the ridger said

    Seems to me that he’s talking about things that are either part of the verb – since clearly you can’t say “I depend you”, or adverbial – “tie the prisoner” and tie the prisoner up” aren’t the same, the latter being more like “tie the prisoner to the chair”. Some English prepositions are case markers more than spatial ones.

  2. h.s. gudnason said

    From John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1727) (with reference to the threatened execution of Polly’s husband, Macheath):

    O ponder well! be not severe:
    So save a wretched Wife!
    For on the Rope that hangs my Dear
    Depends poor Polly’s Life.

    • Neal said

      Wow, good one! Of course, with poetry (and other literature) you have to wonder if it was done deliberately for its jarring effect. But I won’t dismiss it on those grounds; that would be circular argumentation.

  3. Chris Brew said

    Stand by that statue (locational, probably the speaker is trying to take a photo, or just being randomly bossy. Although Bob Levine may point out that someone could be generally supportive of statues, and argue that other readings are possible.)
    Stand by your man. (Tammy Wynette’s classic hit, probably not locational)
    Stand by for adventure.

    Stand by me (Ben E. King’s classic hit, or another attempt to organize a photo? )

    The “adventure” one feels to me as if no actual standing need be involved, so I suppose it is a phrasal verb taking a FOR-phrase as complement. But “stand by NP” in the sense of “be generally supportive of NP” is a betwixt-and-between.

    If you can do “stand by that statue, your man, me and for adventure” you have a really bad case of whatever it is Carl thought you had.

  4. Eugene said

    (Just for fun:) Why is it necessary to make a distinction between literal and metaphorical prepositions and call the latter “dummy?” The original meaning of ‘depend’ is something like ‘hang,’ and one thing can certainly hang on another. So for one person to depend on another derives from an expression that clearly was spatial, and the thing that depended was an object of ‘on.’ In this case the metaphor is fairly transparent, but even if it weren’t, I don’t see why we need a special syntactic description.

    • Neal said

      It’s not necessarily necessary. You’re right in that the “dummy” use of “on” developed from a more straightforward usage, and it’s hard to draw a bright line between when a word’s different meanings are all variants or metaphorical extensions of one meaning, and when the meanings are so far apart that the current generation of speakers simply considers the different meanings to belong to a set of homophones. One test (not always conclusive) is this kind of crossed-senses test, the idea being that if the two meanings are still considered to be essentially the same, there will be no problem in parsing the sentence. If there is a problem, one explanation is that there is more than one “on”, and that’s when you’d want to make a distinction between them.

      • Eugene said

        Interesting. Certainly content words develop distinct senses over time. Is that true for function words as well? I don’t think any of the determiners have distinct senses, do they? Most of the modals have deontic and epistemic meanings that could be considered distinct (though I wouldn’t). The prepositions in general have a rather broad range of meanings, but do any of them have multiple dictionary entries? (I’ll check later – gotta get outside for a while.) Thanks for the reply.

  5. Eugene said

    The joke about living and depending on Everest is funny and odd (I wouldn’t say ungrammatical) because it coordinates a literal and a figurative structure. I wonder whether that’s a general principle. For example, we’d have to be joking to say, “he’s in the kitchen and out of his mind.” Or how about, “she’s a teacher and a princess”?

  6. ASG said

    Have you looked into literary uses of syllepsis for more examples of jokes in the style of the Everest one? Not all of them are predicated on dummy prepositions but many of them are. Some years ago Joel Stickley wrote a classic blog post made up entirely of an exhausting series of syllepses; there are some good follow-ups in the comments too.

  7. I’ve just come across an odd construction, and I’m not quite sure if I’ve put my finger on what’s odd about it. I bought some MP3s from Amazon, and then I got this message: “Once your music is saved, you can play or download it on your computer, phone, or tablet.”

    Is this a dummy sense of “on” being coordinated with a spatial one? At first I misread it as “play or download it to” and thought it was a case of right-node wrapping. I think I want it to be “play it on or download it to” or “play it on or download it onto”. But as it is, something’s a little off.

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