The Grammarphobia Blog

Can function follow form?

Q: I can’t help but pause when I encounter contradictory prepositions, as in sentences like these: 1) “Leslie went out in the woods” and 2) “Morgan is off on an errand.” Is this usage legitimate?

A: The function a word performs depends on how it’s used in a sentence. What looks like a preposition may actually be an adverb. 

Words like “in,” “out,” “off,” “on,” “over,” “down,” “under,” and many more can be adverbs as well as prepositions. So what appears to be a contradictory set of prepositions may in fact be a quite sensible adverb-preposition combination.  

In sentences like “Leslie went out in the woods” and “Morgan is off on an errand,” the words “out” and “off” are adverbs. The words “in” and “on” are prepositions.

Further examples: “Leslie looked in [adverb] on [preposition] the baby” … “Morgan looked on [adverb] over [preposition] my shoulder” … “She looks down [adverb] upon [preposition] the valley.”

There are many other combinations of adverbs and prepositions that look contradictory in isolation, but aren’t at all contradictory in actual use.

Examples: “While swimming, he went under [adverb], over [preposition] his mother’s objections” … “The child acted out [adverb] in [preposition] typical fashion” … “We went over [adverb] under [preposition] protest” … “The alarm went off [adverb] on [preposition] time.”

We hope this solves the mystery!

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