Look homeward, adposition

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A preposition is a word you are not supposed to end a sentence with. The nyah-nyah literalist's case for following this rule is etymological: "Preposition" gets its name from being placed (positioned) before (pre). The book is on the shelf. "On" is placed before "the shelf."

There are a few cases where another rule prevails, as in: Charlie couldn't get to work on time, all his efforts notwithstanding. "Notwithstanding" is identified in my dictionary as prep. But there's a view among some grammarians that this is an example of a postposition, like a preposition but appearing after its object.

Come to find out there's even an adverb for this kind of situation. In the sentence about Charlie above, we can say "notwithstanding" is being used "postpositionally."

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The ward of homeward is a vestigial "postposition." He looked homeward = He looked toward home.

English sentences usually march along pretty straightforwardly. But every once in a while there's a surprise, and we find a word not where we expect it to be. It's a sign of variety in our language, and of the continuing influences on it from many sources.

I've been thinking about all this because "A.Word.A.Day," the popular e-mail service, not long ago went through a week of postpositives, adjectives that typically follow the noun they modify.

That's another example of a class of words not where you would expect to find them. After all, in English, adjectives typically pile up before nouns. The list of postpositives was diverse: It included regent, from Latin, as in, "the prince regent," to refer to one who rules when the monarch is indisposed or under age.

It also featured prepense, an Anglo- Norman legal term from Latin, meaning "premeditated," like the Anglo-Saxon aforethought, as in "malice aforethought."

A strong presence of French and Latin in such a list, especially for legal usage, should be no surprise. French was the official language of Parliament and the law in England from the Norman Conquest until 1362.

The list of postpositives included galore, meaning "abundant," from Irish; and agonistes, from Greek, meaning "one engaged in a struggle" – as in Milton's "Samson Agonistes," or a few centuries later, Garry Wills's "Nixon Agonistes."

The fifth item was akimbo, meaning "with hands on hips and elbows bent outward." It seems more adverb than adjective, but one has to appreciate how many words it saves. It seems to come from Scandinavia, rooted in the idea of arms "at a keen bow."

The Online Etymology Dictionary makes the charming observation that many languages turn to a teapot metaphor to handle this concept. The French term is faire le pot à deux anses, to make the pot with two handles. Having that kind of metaphor in the language must undercut the force of the pose as a gesture of defiance, however.

One little bit of verbal abundance I've enjoyed lately is the term adposition.

Adposition is a linguist's blanket or umbrella term for prepositions and postpositions. Come to find out there's even ambiposition, for words that can go either way: "She slept through the night" versus "She slept the night through." Arguably, notwithstanding falls into this camp.

For the true connoisseur, there are "circumpositions," adpositions that bracket their complement fore and aft: "From that time on, he watched every game." Here time is the complement, or object, and from and on form the circumposition.

There is no end to this. Some grammarians are identifying new prepositions – terms that I learned as phrasal prepositions: on account of, by dint of, etc. Adpositions galore. Or maybe just more words we shouldn't end a sentence with.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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