Intransitive prepositions or adverbs?

For the benefit of teachers and grammar geeks, I want to take a slight digression here from my overview of French prepositions to go into more detail about the notion of intransitive prepositions. In the following sentences, I mentioned that I consider the word inside to be a preposition in both cases:

He is inside the house
He is inside
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This view is reasonably uncontroversial in modern syntactic analyses1. But if you are versed in more traditional grammar, then you're probably used to the view that in the second case, inside would be considered to be an adverb. For example, Price (2003), A Comprehensive French Grammar mentions that certain prepositions are "also regularly used as adverbs" (para 645).

If you do take the view that inside is an adverb in the second case, then it is worth bearing in mind the following:

  • even as "adverbs", prepositions appear to retain grammatical properties and don't actually appear to have certain grammatical properties of adverbs;
  • it's not clear what the motivation is for saying that the preposition "moves" category whereas we don't, for example, say that the word drinks belongs to a different category in he drinks vs he drinks beer.

Grammatical properties of prepositions vs adverbs

To elaborate on the first point, recall that prepositions can generally be introduced by a short list of "specifiers", usually just, right and, if the meaning fits, straight and a few other synonyms such as directly:

He's just/right inside the house.
You go just/right/straight/directly across the river.
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At least in the case of the last three, we can tell that these are "closely bound" to the preposition, because unlike, say, the word barely, they can't be placed before the verb2:

You go barely across the river.
You barely go across the river.
You straight/directly go across the river.
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Now, notice that when we remove the object, this doesn't change the fact that just, right etc are still possible and natural choices, with the same restriction on the placement of right/straight:

He's just/right inside.
You go just/right/straight across.
You right/straight go across.
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So in other words, prepositions appear to have a "special" construction in which words like straight, right can be closely bound to them, and this special construction is still possible when the preposition is uesd without the object, suggetsing that the preposition is still "truly" a preposition and has not changed category.


1. As examples of such analyses, see: Radford (1997), Syntactic theory and the structure of English: A minimalist approach; Jones (1996), Foundations of French syntax. A variation on this view is to say that the "objectless" use is an absolute use of the preposition, but that in effect an object is implied (cf Rowlett (2007), The Syntax of French, Section 2.4.3).
2. This illustraton doesn't unfortunately work so well with just, because You just go across the river is grammatical. Arguably this sentence has a different meaning, however, and is a different use of just.

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