The Grammarphobia Blog

Pre-, post-, and ante- position

Q: In addition to the grammar term “preposition,” is there such a thing as a “postposition” or an “anteposition” as a part of speech? Or am I mistaking “pre-” as a prefix in “preposition”?

A: Yes, “postposition” and “anteposition” are grammatical terms, though they aren’t among the terms for the traditional parts of speech.

And yes the “pre-” in “preposition” is a prefix—or rather was a prefix in its Latin source.

All three terms are etymological cousins. They’re ultimately derived from three related classical Latin verbs:

“preposition” comes from praepōnere (to put in front of), “postposition” from postpōnere (to put after), and “anteposition” from antepōnere (to put before).

As you know, a “preposition” is a term that’s typically put in front of a noun or noun phrase to position it in relation to other words, as “by” is used in “the house by the creek,” or “in back of” in “the copper beech in back of the house.”

“Postposition” refers to the placement of a term, or to a term that’s placed, after a grammatically related word or phrase. For example, “-ward” is a postposition in “homeward,” and “royal” appears postposition in “battle royal.”

“Anteposition” refers to the placement of a word or phrase before another, especially if that position is unusual. Examples: “fiddlers” in “fiddlers three” and “echoed” in “echoed the thunder.”

The first of the three terms to show up in English was “preposition,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example, dated around 1434, is from the writings of John Drury, a canon of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle:

“With what case xal þe [shall the] comparatif degre be construid with be cause of his degre? With an ablatif case of eyþer nownbre [either number] with oute a preposicion.” (The dictionary also cites two earlier uses of the Latin noun praepositiō in Old English.)

The first Oxford citation for “postposition” (from a 1736 English translation of a French history of China) says the prepositions in two Chinese phrases “are Postpositions, because they are put after the Nouns.”

And the earliest OED example for “anteposition” is from a 1728 Italian-English dictionary by Ferdinando Altieri: “The Position, or Anteposition causes the o to be pronounced open.”

By the way, the traditional parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection, though modern grammarians and linguists often use more precise classifications.

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she includes a sentence that uses all the traditional parts of speech:

“But [conjunction] gosh [interjection], you [pronoun] are [verb] really [adverb] in [preposition] terrible [adjective] trouble [noun]!”

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