Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Prepositions, Pronouns, and Particles

In the last lesson, we took a side trip into the essentials of technical writing. Now, let's get back to some thorny grammar problems. Today, we will cover prepositional phrases, how to use pronouns correctly within them, and how to identify when a preposition is actually a particle (and why you might care). 


A prepositional phrase provides additional information such as when, where, and how. It always starts with a preposition like one of the following words:


(For a list of more prepositions, go here.)

For example, consider this simple sentence:
I drove.
If you want to say where you drove, add a prepositional phrase:
I drove to the store.
You could also use a prepositional phrase to say when you drove:
I drove to the store after midnight.
If you want to say more about which route you drove, put the prepositional phrase after the verb “drove”:
I drove on highway 101 to the store.
If you want to say more about where the store is located, put the prepositional phrase after the noun “store”:
I drove to the store on Broadway.
Notice that you’ve now nested a prepositional phrase within a prepositional phrase, which is perfectly fine. You can use several prepositional phrases to add lots of details:
After midnight, I drove with Sam on highway 101 to the store on Broadway.
A simple prepositional phrase has just a preposition followed by a noun (midnight, Sam, highway 101, store, Broadway) and any modifiers (e.g., sleepy Sam, busy store). 

If the words following the preposition include a subject and verb, though, it’s called a subordinate conjunction.

For example, here are two sentences that use the preposition “after”:
I drove after midnight. (prepositional phrase) 
I drove after Sam fell asleep. (subordinate conjunction)


In prepositional phrases, the words that come after the preposition make up the object of the preposition. In a subordinate conjunction, however, the words that follow the preposition make up a clause, which must include (at minimum) a subject and verb. Why does it matter if it’s a prepositional phrase or a subordinate conjunction? Let’s look at an example:
I’m going with whomever
I’m going with whoever wants to go.
In the first sentence, you don’t have a verb after the preposition, so it’s a prepositional phrase, and the pronoun that follows the preposition must be an object. This means that if you’re using a pronoun like “whoever”, you have to use the object form “whomever”, not the subject form “whoever”.

In the second sentence, however, you have a verb, so it’s a subordinate conjunction. In this case, you use the subject form “whoever” instead of the object form “whomever”.

This causes a lot of confusion. I see this incorrect construction all the time:
Wrong: I’m going with whomever wants to go.
This is wrong because “whomever” cannot be the subject of the verb “wants”. You need the subject form “whoever” instead. 

Now, let’s make things even more confusing:
I’m going with whomever I want.
This sentence is correct! Why? Because in this subordinate conjunction, the subject is “I” and the verb is “want”. It also has an object (“whomever”), which appears at the beginning of the clause in a subordinate conjunction. If you were writing the clause as a sentence, it would be:
I want whomever.
But when the clause is subordinate, the object comes first, which can make it harder to spot the subject vs. the object:
I’m going with whomever I want.
Take another example:
I’m addressing the letter to whom it may concern.
This is a subordinate clause with a subject (“it”), verb (“may concern”), and object (“whom”). 

Here’s another construction that causes problems all the time:
Shiraz and I took the candy. 
She gave the candy to Shiraz and me.
In the first sentence, “Shiraz and I” is the subject of the sentence, so you use the subject form of the pronoun “I”. But in the second sentence, “Shiraz and me” is the object of the preposition, so you use the object form and write “me” instead. You could also say:
She gave Shiraz and me the candy.
In this case, "Shiraz and me" is the indirect object, so you use the object form "me". 

People often say “Me and Shiraz took the candy” or “Shiraz and me took the candy”, which are both wrong and make my ears hurt. But it’s even more painful when people try to sound correct and use the subject when they should be using the object, such as “She gave the candy to Shiraz and I”. (No, she didn’t. She gave it to Shiraz and me.)

So how can you remember all this? First, identify the subject by asking yourself who or what is doing the action. You will then have a much easier time figuring out which word, if any, is the object.

For example, in the candy sentence, here’s what’s going on in my head:

“Okay, she’s giving the candy, so ‘She’ is the subject of the sentence and ‘gave’ is the verb. What did she give? The candy. So that’s the object of the sentence. Now I see a preposition (to), so what follows is either a prepositional phrase or a subordinate clause. I just see nouns, no verbs, so this is a prepositional phrase, which means I need to use the object form ‘me’. The pronouns 'I' and 'me' always come after the other person, so the sentence is: She gave the candy to Shiraz and me.” 


Here's an interesting point that won’t usually affect your writing but is nice to know: sometimes words that look like prepositions are actually part of the verb. These are called particles. For example, in the verb “sign in”, “in” is a particle, not a preposition, and is an important part of the verb. Consider the differences in these two sentences:
Be sure to sign in before you continue. ("in" is a particle) 
The sign in the office welcomes visitors. ("in" is a preposition)
The main reason you might care about identifying a particle vs. a preposition is if you’re tempted to move the parts of the sentence around. The particle must not be separated from the verb, whereas the prepositional phrase can be moved. For example, you can say:
In the office, the sign welcomes visitors.
But you cannot say:
In before you continue, be sure to sign.
Nor can you say:
Before you continue, in be sure to sign. 
Even Yoda doesn’t do this. (Awkward his speech is. Yes. Yes! Yet wise Yoda is.)