The Printable KISS Grammar Workbooks The KISS Homepage
Notes for Teachers 
on Separated Objects of Prepositions
     One of the complexities of prepositional phrases involves separated objects. In analyzing randomly selected texts, these complexities appear fairly rarely, and thus when students should be introduced to them must be decided by teachers. These notes, therefore, are intended to help teachers be aware of what is involved.
     Let’s face it, humans are smart and economical. If something is understood, we don’t take the trouble to spell it out. Consider the following sentence from Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg”: 
The local freight train came in and the freight crew were fed.
It’s obvious that the train came “in” to the station, but the last part of the preposition and the rest of the phrase are simply ellipsed. Students can deal with sentences such as this by considering the preposition as part of the verb phrase or as an adverb, but it might be a good idea to spend a little time discussing them in terms of ellipsis.
     Sometimes two prepositional phrases are combined and the object of one can be considered as ellipsed — “They walk {to and from school.}” I would not expect students to spell out the ellipsis here — I note it simply because some people are temporarily confused by it. Note also that phrases with compound objects can be considered in terms of the preposition and conjunction being ellipsed — “They went to school and the playground” equals “They went to school and to the playground.” Here again I would not expect students to discuss ellipsis, but sometimes ellipsis can help students better see the relationships among words. This happens when objects of compounded phrases are themselves modified—
They went to school where they practiced for a play
and the playground where they played baseball.
In analyzing cases such as this, most students find it much clearer if they add an “ellipsed” preposition— 
They went {to school} [where they practiced for a play]
and {*to* the playground} [where they played baseball]. |

Confusion May Result from Separating Compound Objects of Prepositions

     Separated objects of prepositions may confuse readers. Fortunately, the problem is rare, and it probably appears most frequently in complicated texts. But one of the purposes of teaching grammar is to help students navigate the sentence structure of such texts. The following example, which is very complex, also illustrates the often associated problems of vocabulary and context.
     Consider the function of the bold “and the proof” in the second sentence in following passage from F. M. Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation (Dover Publications, 2004, 183):

The two theories make their appearance at the same time, and both alike belong to the scientific tradition. Plato, who condemned both alike as atheistical and immoral, devoted the argument of the Republic to the refutation of political Atomism and the proof that the State is natural, and, if reconstructed on ideal lines, might embody the same principle of Justice that rules through every part of the cosmos.
Which preposition (“to” or “of”) governs the object “proof”? 
     The question is crucial because it makes the difference between two distinctly opposing interpretations: “Plato devoted the Republic to the proof . . . .” or “Plato devoted the Republic to the refutation of the proof. . . .” Obviously, Cornford, as he wrote the sentence, knew which he meant. But readers, in addition to having to deal with the vocabulary, must also call on their previous knowledge of the subject matter, and even then they may not be sure. Although I have read a fair amount of and about Plato, I’m still only guessing when I say that Cornford probably meant “and to the proof.” Had Cornford added the preposition, readers would not have to guess.
     Two lessons can be drawn from this passage. First, in reading difficult texts, students should always remember that their difficulties may not be their fault—the sentence structures may be ambiguous. Second, in writing, be careful that separated objects of prepositions don’t confuse your readers. In case of doubt, insert the intended preposition before the compound objects.
     As a final note, the sentence from Cornford is similar to what linguists call “garden path sentences.” The origin of that label might be interesting to trace. For many people, “cul-de-sac” might be more meaningful. The idea is that sentences are understood to lead us to a meaning—a place. A “garden path” (cul-de-sac) leads, but to a dead end. Thus it forces readers to turn around, go back, and look for a different way., which gives a nice explanation of them, includes the following example: “The old man the boat.” In garden paths, we initially read the text other than the way intended by the writer. Thus, readers will tend to process “man” as the subject. The result is that the sentence does not make sense. In our example, we must go back and figure out that “man” is being used as a verb—“The old (people) man the boat.” Note that the Cornford example is not really confusing in this way. Some people will interpret it as “to the proof” and others may interpret it as “to the refutation of the proof” without ever sensing the syntactic ambiguity.