The presence of a noun phrase after a preposition is so common that traditional grammar books often state that a preposition must always be followed by a noun phrase. Certain exceptions, however, make it clear that we cannot accept that assertion.

First, prepositions will sometimes have other prepositional phrases as complements:

(10) The plane emerged from behind the cloud.

From and behind are both prepositions. But notice that from behind the cloud forms a single constituent. You can move it to the front of a cleft sentence:

(10a) From behind the cloud is where the plane emerged.

Compare the following two sentences:

(2) Ken looked up her number.
(3) Ken looked up her dress.

A little scrutiny will show that up does not have the same function in both sentences. For example, while we can create a cleft sentence with up her dress, we can't do the same thing with up her number:

(2a) *Up her number is what Ken looked.
(3a) Up her dress is where Ken looked.

Also, we can move up to the end of the first sentence, but not the second:

(2b) Ken looked her number up.
(3b) *Ken looked her dress up.

Not everything that looks like a preposition actually behaves like one. For example, the word to followed by a verb phrase forms an infinitive phrase. These infinitive phrases, which we will examine more closely in a later chapter, are verb phrases, not prepositional phrases. We can see this if we contrast infinitive to with the preposition. (1a) My kids always want [to go] [to Disneyland]. In this sentence, the verb want has two constituents that begin with to, but the first is followed by the verb go, and the second by an NP. There are several ways in which the first instance of to behaves very differently from the second.
Prepositional phrases have a variety of functions. They can modify a noun, as in "the child with a runny nose," or verbs, as in "she came from Panama." When PPs modify verbs, they have functions that can often be filled by adverb phrases, or occasionally by other phrase types as well. Constituents that function in this role are sometimes called adverbials, because these constituents answer adverb-like questions such as when, where, how, or why. Similarly, PPs that modify nouns are sometimes called adjectivals. But be careful with these terms. They do not imply that the PPs actually become adverbs or adjectives. Remember that adjective and adverb are categories for words, not for phrases. The terms adverbial and adjectival simply tell you what sort of constituent the phrase modifies. Because this information can also be conveyed by a tree diagram, we won't use these particular terms much, but you should be aware of them, since other works on English grammar use them frequently.
Prepositional phrases are often optional modifiers in the sentence rather than the central elements. Nonetheless, prepositional phrases appear over and over, and so it's worth examining how these phrases work in some detail.

We have already defined prepositions as a class of words that most commonly express relationships of space or time, or which mark syntactic functions.

Examples of Prepositions:

Spatial Relationship: behind the house
Temporal Relationship: after the party
Syntactic Function: the crux of the matter

Like other major word classes, prepositions are the heads of their own phrases. Prepositions are typically followed by a complement, called the object of the preposition. Most of the time, the object of the preposition is a noun phrase. In other words, the abstract phrase structure generally looks like this:

Some students find the concept of nominals to be confusing. Remember that nominals are simply another constituent of grammar. Like other constituents such as phrases and clauses, they function as units. Like phrases, nominals also have heads. Remember that head words are important because their features play a role in how the entire phrase functions within the sentence. That's why we name the phrase after the category of its head word. One way to think of this is that the properties of the word carry over to the phrase. Looking at how this works in a tree diagram, we can think of the properties of the head word as percolating up from the individual word to the phrase. The following diagram represents this "percolation" by showing the edges between the head words and their parent nodes as arrows.[1]


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