Grammar Girl has an interesting article, written by Syelle Graves, about the function of prepositions in a sentence – namely, that they are functional rather than descriptive. Linguistically speaking, they are determiners rather than adjectives, meaning that rather than describing an object as blue or round, they point toward a specific item or relationship to an item. For example, “that” is a determiner that shows you which item in particular you are addressing, whereas “a” indicates that it could be any object represented by the following noun. Similarly, if we say “in the car” we aren’t describing the car, but rather directing your attention to a part of the car, and “into the car” refers to a motion from the outside to the inside.
In the article, the author states that “Prepositions are “function” words, which means they have a grammatical purpose but not much meaning.” This doesn’t mean they have no meaning, of course. There is a difference between “in” and “on.”
I disagree, though, that adjectives are entirely arbitrary and simply a matter of memorization. Or more accurately, I feel it’s overstated in the article, as it seems to say that a preposition’s function is simply to be in that position in the sentence and let you know that something is happening in relation to something, but not at all defining what. Most of them do follow logic. One example given in the article, “in the bed” vs. “on the bed”, isn’t really all that arbitrary. You are on the bed if you are on top of the covers. The covers on a made bed are considered part of it, so when you are under them, you are enclosed by parts of the bed – the very definition of “in.” “In a bind” indicates that you feel enclosed, too, by the circumstances.
I can see, though, how it could be considered arbitrary. Suffering “with a friend” who suffers “from a disease” makes sense, if you consider the connotation of with as “alongside”, but I could also say a “friend with Parkinson’s disease,” so why the difference? My mind interprets it as a function of the verb being modified – “suffer from” and “suffer with” have different meanings. But all prepositional phrases are modifiers, so why the difference?
This seems more a matter of an individual language’s usage conventions, and it’s far from unique to prepositions. It’s all down to collocations (mentioned in the article) and connotations. We have specific ways we say things, such as the article’s example of “black and white.” “White and black” is just as correct, but it just sounds wrong. We have done the same thing with prepositions where there is more than one correct option by choosing one or more as “correct” and setting others aside. Some of these “correct” uses may have been incorrect or illogical uses, based on word definitions, that caught on and stuck, but it wouldn’t be the first time words have been changed that way, either. (Think “I could care less” or “irregardless.”) And, well, there are plenty of things that don’t translate directly from language to language. Is it surprising that different languages assign meaning a bit differently?
The question for me, then, is why does this happen so frequently with prepositions?
From a language learning perspective, the most notable part of this article is that because these unspoken rules are so prevalent and so different between languages, it’s important to memorize phrases rather than just individual prepositions. As the author notes, “languages have a lot of exceptions, and, they change over time,” and how you think of them depends largely on your end goal.
For example, knowing that “English years ago had far fewer prepositions to begin with, and expressed word relationships by changing the word ending, instead” is fun to know from a historical perspective and, if you are interested, there is fascinating research out there about how that change evolved.
But if you are only interested in learning to use a language with some kind of fluency, it may be easier to note what is the same in your target language and focus on what is different – and from a practical perspective, many case endings function very much the same way as prepositional phrases, so equating them when possible may help you build fluency. In the same way, just accepting the differences and memorizing prepositional phrases that don’t fit your own logic can get you closer to native speech.