Prepositions can seem to be adjuncts to a vocabulary, more grammatical devices than words. But they, too, mean. —Robert Graves and Laura Riding
The recent/ongoing debate about adverbs betrays a bias, so deeply held that we fail to recognize it as such. It’s assumed that nouns and verbs are essential. So are adjectives and even adverbs, we allow, despite the occasional kerfuffle over their relative importance. But prepositions? They’re unworthy of either praise or condemnation. They’re just there, and barely so.
Yet that easy-to-miss quality is what makes them the most important part of language. Prepositions work almost invisibly, while the more salient nouns and verbs and their modifiers hog all the credit. They truck in relations, which is a trickier—and frankly more essential—business than naming things or designating actions. They are the duct tape of language, jerry-rigging words and phrases into sentences.
It’s no accident they’re called “function words”: they do the real work of language. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are just fingers pointing at the moon—or fingers pointing at the fingers pointing at… .
Other words are replaceable, but you can’t thesaurus a preposition. As the result of centuries of make-do use, rushing in where other words fear to tread, each preposition has acquired a complex range of meanings, so subtle that it’s almost impossible to define, that is, to put into other words. If you don’t believe me, look up of or about or at.
They are also the most flexible/adaptable word type, embracing all other functions of language. According to Laura Riding and Robert Graves, “Of, as a possessive force, is very verbal.” But sometimes, they add, of can be “nominal, quasi-appositional,” for example, “a case of mistaken identity.”
This grammatical shapeshifting is much more subtle than, say, than classic anthimeria, using one part of speech for another, such as verbing nouns, as I did a couple paragraphs back with “thesaurus.” Anthimeria is self-conscious, show-offy, and calls attention to itself like a crack in the mirror. It makes readers stumble. But prepositions silently and effortlessly adapt to the needs of the situation.
Their nuance enables their neglect. Let’s face it. Most of us are linguistic Yahoos, oohing and ahing over glittery substantives. But as William James warned:
We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.
Yet the importance of prepositions has not been lost on everyone, especially poets. For example, Gertrude Stein (who studied with William James at Radcliffe) said that
Prepositions can live one long life being really being nothing but absolutely nothing but mistaken and that makes them irritating if you feel that way about mistakes but certainly something that you can be continuously using and everlastingly enjoying. I like prepositions the best of all.
Most prepositions are modest monosyllables, so we can understand why Stein had a thing for possibly the most ostentatious preposition, notwithstanding, using it five times in the final paragraph of Tender Buttons.
In this excerpt from Stanzas in Meditation, Stein uses prepositions—by, for, with, of, and in—to finesse our understanding of an antecedentless “it.”
By it by which by it
As not which not which by it
For it it is in an accessible with it
But which will but which will not it
Come to be not made not made one of it
By that all can tell all call for in it
That they can better call add
Can in add none add it.
—From “Stanza VII”
Stein’s use of a cypher-pronoun compels us to seek meaning elsewhere: we lean into the prepositions, and the meaning becomes kaleidoscopic. “Meaning,” I admit, is a clumsy and flat-footed term to designate what this poem says—really, does—but that only proves my point: prepositions take us to a place where our metalanguage gives out, where we need the linguistic equivalent to quantum physics to account for what’s going on.
But not all pro-preposition poets are experimentalists. Robert Frost, for instance, seemed almost obsessed with “in” and “out”: “All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him” (“An Old Man’s Winter’s Night”); “What I was walling in or walling out” (”Mending Wall”); “Back out of all this now too much for us” (”Directive”). His “Spring Pools” is a study in prepositions:
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will the flowers beside them soon be gone
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foilage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
They say you should never end a sentence in a preposition, but we know that’s just more anti-prep propaganda, denying this amazing word-group the most prominent place in the sentence. So, as a corrective, allow me to break another marmism—”Never end with a quote!”—and conclude with two preposition-heavy quotes from contemporary poets. First this brief but brain-bending excerpt from Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience In Groups,” from April’s Boston Review:
Has gone out in the poem
In both senses of out, all senses
And finally this poem by Rosmarie Waldrop, from her poem sequence Pre + Con or Positions + Junctions, reprinted in Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, just published by New Directions:
of blue excite
of never except
in his early
in childhood has he touched
of the space of
of for impact
now of that color
or of skin
of but light
no deep foundation
nor of leans into