A complex preposition consists of two words taken together to perform the office of one connective. — A Practical Grammar of the English Language (1869)  by  Andrew Burtt

As the quote illustrates, complex prepositions are a REAL THING and have been around since at least 1869. Having said that, they do create a certain amount of confusion and debate, and modern grammar continues to challenge traditional grammar’s concept of all prepositions. In The Cambridge Grammar of English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston writes, “One of the main respects in which the present grammar departs from traditional grammar is in its conception of prepositions.”

We have two basic groups of complex prepositions:

1. Two-Word Complex Prepositions
2. Three-Word and Four-Word Complex Prepositions

And here is a relatively complete list of both types.

Two-Word Complex Prepositions: 37 Total

1) according to,  2) adjacent to,  3) ahead of,  4) along with,  5) apart from,  6) as for,  7) as of,  8) as per,  9) as regards,  10) as to,  11) aside from,  12) away from,  13) because of,  14) but for,  15) close to,  16) contrary to,  17) due to,  18) except for,  19) far from,  20) in between,  21) inside of,  22) instead of,  23) irrespective of,  24) next to,  25) opposite to,  26) out of,  27) outside of,  28) owing to,  29) pertaining to,  30) prior to,  31) pursuant to,  32) regardless of,  33) subsequent to,  34) thanks to,  35) together with,  36) up against,  37) up to.

Three-Word and Four-Word Complex Prepositions: 45 Total

Note: The three-word and four-word prepositions are very similar in structure, except that the four-word prepositions contains an article (the or a).

1) as a result of,  2) at the expense of,  3) by means of,  4) by virtue of,  5) by way of,  6) for the sake of,  7) in accordance with / to,  8) in addition to,  9) in back of,  10) in case of,  11) in charge of,  12) in comparison with / to,  13) in common with,  14) in connection with / to,  15) in contact with,  16) in contrast with / to,  17) in exchange for,  18) in favor of,  19) in front of,  20) in lieu of,  21) in (the) light of,  22) in line with,  23) in need of,  24) in place of,  25) in the process of,  26) in reference to,  27) in regard to,  28) in relation to,  29) in respect to,  30) in return for,  31) in search of,  32) in spite of,  33) in terms of,  34) in view of,  35) on account of,  36) on behalf of,  37) on the matter of,  38) on top of,  39) to the left of,  40) to the right of,  41) to the side of,  42) with reference to,  43) with regard to,  44) with respect to,  45) with the exception of.

Valid Complex Prepositions

I’ve come across a number of lists of complex prepositions that would be a source of great debate for grammarians, and some lists even contain outright errors. Many questionable prepositions look quite similar to the prepositions listed above, but do not parse as complex prepositions, and don’t appear on most authoritative lists of prepositions.

I’ve chosen to omit words that are debatable. I’ve also omitted rarely used and archaic complex prepositions. For this reason, you may be able to find a few more complex prepositions than the 82 I have listed above. Having said that, I have confirmed that at least one authoritative source has listed each of these 82 complex prepositions as being valid. To some extent, complex prepositions are created through idiomatic use, and I didn’t want to include any complex prepositions that might be debatable or that are just plain wrong.

What are Complex Prepositions? Answer: Wolf Packs

Young student writers want to understand how and why groups of words (phrases, clauses, compound words etc.) can act just like one word. The short answer is this: That’s just how language works. A longer answer would involve a study of syntactic slots.

I’ve found one more technique that makes things quite clear for young grammarians: It’s an analogy and a metaphor from the animal kingdom. I call a group of words that functions as a single unit a Wolf Pack. (Note: I never overuse terms like this; this is simply a teaching tool that makes sense to students.) Of course, a teacher can use ants or killer whales or dolphins or lions or birds in flight, but I’ve found that a Wolf Pack is the best metaphor. And if you can find a nice documentary clip of a wolf pack in a chase in the snow, all the better.

All prepositional phrases are Wolf Packs, and prepositional phrase that contain complex prepositions compound the concept.

• Complex Prepositions = Wolf Packs = Function as a single unit, and function as a single part of speech (prepositions).

• Prepositional Phrases = Wolf Packs = Function as a single unit, and function as a single part of speech (primarily adverbs and adjectives).

Debating and Parsing Complex Prepositions

If people wish to debate complex prepositions, it comes down to debating how one should parse a sentence. Parsing involves breaking a sentence into parts based on how the parts connect syntactically. Parsing sentences has a long history in grammar instruction, but plenty of modern research indicates that it’s not an effective use of class time. Having said that, I do recommend becoming familiar with a few different online parsers: e.g., Stanford, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon. Please note, all these online parsers are based on modern linguistics and don’t align perfectly with traditional grammar or with school grammar. Furthermore, different parsers deliver different results. Still, they are extremely interesting and useful tools.

The following parsing example will help you understand what goes on inside a complex preposition. Grammarians do debate and argue about complex prepositions, and parsers do deliver different results. Here are two different parsing results for one very simple sentence.

The sentences is this: Kim rested prior to the meeting. The complex preposition is this: prior to.

Parsers AdverbPrepositional Phrase
1. Carnegie & StanfordKim restedprior.
2. StanfordKim restedpriorto the meeting.
3. CarnegieKim restedprior to the meeting.

Both parsers agree that by itself “prior” is an adverb. However, the parsers disagree on how to treat “prior to.” By studying this one example and the different interpretations, you understand a great deal about complex prepositions. However, you will understand them even better and be able to spot them and analyze them better once you understand the common complex-preposition patterns.

Complex Preposition Patterns

Complex preposition contain multiple words. But what kinds of words? Individually, most of the words function as prepositions, adjectives (including participle adjectives), adverbs, conjunctions, nouns, and articles. These words usually combine according to specific patterns.

Two-Word Complex Preposition Pattern: Total 37

The two-word prepositions are pretty straightforward. You will notice that I provide a frequency count for the second word. Many of the first words can be used as several different parts of speech, so there is no way to come up with an accurate count.

•  First Word: The first word is usually an adjective (including participle adjective), adverb, or conjunction.

•  Second Word: The second word is usually one of these prepositions: to (16), of (9), from (4), for (3), with (2), misc. (4).

Three-Word and Four-Word Complex Preposition Pattern: Total 45

These complex prepositions create a phrase that can be interpreted as two prepositional phrases in a row. They all contain two prepositions and follow these two patterns:

1.  Preposition + Noun + Preposition                                        (Total: 36)
2.  Preposition + Article (the, a) + Noun + Preposition            (Total: 9)

Each of these 45 complex preposition uses two prepositions, and 94 prepositions are used in total. Surprisingly, only 8 individual prepositions are used: of (28), in (27), to (15), with (10), on (10), by (3), as (1), at (1).

Be sure to read:

1.  82 Color-Coded Complex Prepositions in Prepositional Phrases – Example Sentences with Analysis
2.  74 Color-Coded Prepositional Phrase Example Sentences with Analysis

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