Constituent, adverbial, and the prepositional phrase

Consider the following sentence:

(1) He is at the station.

We could ask

(2) Where is he?

and we may also ask:

(3) He is at what?


(4) What is he at?

However (3) and (4) are marked in the linguistic sense. (2) seems the more natural question form. Consider (5):

(5) He is there.

We are no longer able to ask (3) or (4). This shows that at the station in (1) is equivalent to there in (5). It is a constituent, an adverbial to be exact, and in (1) a prepositional phrase more precisely.


Just remember this: the agent of a sentence is the one doing the action of the verb. Consider the following sentences:

(1) The car struck the fence.
(2) The fence was struck by the car.

In both (1) and (2) it is the car that is doing striking, even though in (2) it is NOT the subject. It is the subject that does the action of the active sentence, and the noun of the prepositional phrase in the passive (if the sentence has a prepositional phrase at all) that is the agent.

Active vs. passive sentence structures

One of the reasons (there are many reason but this is just one) why we would like to change an active sentence into a passive one is because we would like to bring the object of the sentence into focus. Consider these sentences:

  1. My brother was hit by a car.
  2. A car hit my brother.

The focus on my brother is far more important than that of the car. So it would seem logical to put my brother in the subject position of the sentence, as in 1. The subject position should be seen as being reserved for more important information, or be the focus of the sentence. So if the sentence becomes a passive structure let it be so if it is appropriate. But when the choice of active or passive is an equally valid one, choose the active. The active is usually clearer and more efficient.


In any English sentence there are either zero, one, two or three actants.

Actants are the “participants” of the sentence. They are either people or things. In (1) below the action of “to rain” itself is the “zero” actant.

(1) It is raining.

“It” is the dummy subject.

In (2) and (3) the subjects “Peter” and “Charlene” are the actants respectively.

(2) Peter is swimming.
(3) Charlene is a teacher.

In (2) the act itself is performed by the subject “he”. In (3) “Charlene” and “the teacher” are one and the same person. Only one actant is involved in the description of the situation. In (4) and (5) below there are two actants. In (4) they are “Dave” and “the ball”. In (5) they are “the people” and “Hilary”. Since “Hilary” and “he president” are one and the same person we do not count the president as an actant.

(4) Dave kicked the ball.
(5) The people made Hilary the president.

In (6) we have three actants.

(6) Tony gave Leslie a presnet.

They are “Tony”, “Leslie” and “a present”.

Technically, it is possible to have more actants (and more than likely some languages do) but in English our limit seems to be three. More complex sentences will be simple sentences in disguise.

In praise of lexicogrammar

Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.

As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.

Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.