This past Wednesday, I announced on my other blog that I’d discuss diagramming and Latin here today. But upon reflection, I’ve realized that those two topics need underpinnings before exploration.
So today, instead, I’ll share with you the far-distant beginnings of my delight in language. It was in the fifth-grade classroom at Saint Mary’s Grade School in Independence, Missouri, in 1946, that words and I became friends.
Our fifth-grade English textbook presented us with five rows of prepositions listed in alphabetical order. Here are those forty-five words as I remember them:
about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, outside, over, past, since, through, to, towards, under, until, up, upon, with, within, without
Sister Mary McCauley, our teacher, challenged us to memorize all forty-five and to list them in less than a minute. One by one we’d stand beside our desks and spout them off. She’d reward us with stickers if we beat our previous time. Each of us repeatedly broke our records. Finally we were able to list those forty-five words in only a few seconds.
Once we’d memorized the prepositions, she’d give us a noun—perhaps “table”—and ask us how many prepositions we could use with it. For instance: above the table, across the table, against the table, behind the table, below the table, beneath the table, beside the table, inside the table, like the table, near the table, on the table, under the table, upon the table, without a table.
On another day, she’d give us two nouns—perhaps “cat” and “bed”—and the verb “is” and ask us to form simple sentences using a preposition. A student might imagine the following: The cat is behind the bed, below the bed, beneath the bed, beside the bed, near the bed, on the bed, under the bed, upon the bed, without a bed.
Ultimately, Sister Mary McCauley gave us three words: perhaps “cat,” “jumped,” “bed.” Once again, we’d stand, one by one, by our desk and, as rapidly as we could, spiel off our list. Someone might start with “The cat jumped behind the bed” and then proceed through the memorized list of prepositions until finally proclaiming, “The cat jumped toward the bed” and “The cat jumped without a bed.”
Thus, we learned to construct and claim sentences. Moreover we learned to recognize prepositional phrases, which at their most basic are formed with a preposition and a noun.
The next thing we needed to learn was the adjectival and the adverbial use of these phrases. That is, whether the prepositional phrase told the listener or reader something about a noun or about a verb. That would come in sixth grade when Sister Mary McCauley began to teach us diagramming. Next Sunday, I’ll explain how she taught that.
Learning how to diagram a sentence helped me dissect it into its elements. And this activity helped me think logically and write more clearly.
One thing more: In high school, I discovered that English boasts more than 45 prepositions. Actually, Amazon now offers several books on prepositions with one at least listing 150 of them.
Isn’t this just the way? You think you’ve learned something and then you discover you’ve just viewed the tip of the iceberg. So much lies beneath the water’s surface!
PS: Cast your eyes at that photograph from the television show “Friends.” Wow! The number of prepositional phrases you can make to describe that scene!
The “Friends” photo is from Wikipedia.