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Aligned and Embedded Prepositional Phrases

      Thus far you have been identifying individual prepositional phrases by placing parentheses around each phrase. Although we will continue to identify prepositional phrases in this way, it is important to note that some phrases are, so to speak, inside other phrases, whereas some phrases "jump over" other phrases to modify a word that is separated from them. Consider, for example, the prepositional phrases in the following passage from "Rumpelstiltzkin":

     Then the Queen pondered the whole night {over all the names} she had ever heard, and sent a messenger to scour the land, and to pick up far and near any names he could come across. When the little man arrived {on the following day} she began {with Kasper, Melchior, Belshazzar, and all the other names} she knew, but {at each one} the manikin called out: "That's not my name." The next day she sent to inquire the names {of all the people} {in the neighborhood}, and had a long list {of the most uncommon and extraordinary} {for the little man}.
The first four prepositional phrases in this passage are relatively simple, but we should note that some of them "jump over" words to get to the words they modify.
     The first phrase, "{over all the names}," jumps over the phrase "the whole night" because it describes, and thus functions as an adverb to, the verb  "pondered." The next phrase, "{on the following day}," tells when the man "arrived" and thus functions as an adverb to the verb "arrived" which immediately precedes it. Similarly, the third, "{with ... names}," explains where she "began" and thus functions as an adverb to that verb. The fourth phrase, "{at each one}," like the first, jumps over a phrase, "the manikin," and tells when the manikin "called out." It therefore functions as an adverb to that verb.
     The last four phrases in the passage differ from the first four in that they consist of two sets of phrases that are right next to each other:
The next day she sent to inquire the names {of all the people} {in the neighborhood}, and had a long list {of the most uncommon and extraordinary} {for the little man}.
In the first pair, the phrase "{of all the people}" functions as an adjective to "names," and the second functions as an adjective to "people."  But since "people" is itself in a prepositional phrase, we can say that the second phrase is embedded in the first. We can, in other words, consider it all as one long prepositional phrase with a prepositional phrase inside it:

{of all the people {in the neighborhood}}

In some long sentences, separating the {} marks in this way becomes confusing, so in the exercises you will be asked to underline embedded phrases:

{of all the people} {in the neighborhood}

     The second pair of phrases differs from the first in that both phrases function as adjectives to the noun "list":

a long list {of the most uncommon and
extraordinary} {for the little man}.

Thus the second phrase in the pair is not embedded in the first, but rather it is aligned with it to modify the same word as the first.

Alternative Explanations

      As in many aspects of KISS Grammar, people may perceive things differently. Consider the following sentence from "The Yellow Dwarf":

Bellissima was sitting {in a little thicket} {by a brook}, leaning her head {upon her hand} and weeping bitterly.
Some people will explain "by a brook" as an adjective to "thicket" and thus as embedded in the "in a little thicket" phrase. Other people will argue that the "in a little thicket" phrase could be eliminated  -- "was sitting by a brook", and thus the "by a brook" phrase should be considered as aligned rather than as embedded. In cases like this, both explanations should be considered correct.


This material is based on "Embedded and Aligned Phrase Structures," by Robert Einarsson, Grant MacEwan Community College, Edmonton, Canada.