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What Is a Circumposition?

By Megan Shoop
Updated May 23, 2024
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Circumposition occurs when a prepositional phrase contains two prepositions, one at the beginning of the phrase and one at the end. This is called a circumposition because the phrase is surrounded by prepositions. These are uncommon in the English language because the positioning of the prepositional object becomes confused if it is not done correctly. Foreign languages, such as French and Mandarin Chinese, are better suited to circumposition because their prepositions are more fluid. When translated literally into English, these phrases are examples of circumposition, but they sound odd.

Very specifically, circumposition combines the usage of a preposition and a postposition to create a bookended phrase. The range of postpositions is generally made up of the same words as the range of prepositions, the only difference between the two is where the words are placed. Prepositions always come before the prepositional object, while postpositions come after. For instance, “four days ago” and “three minutes before” are both postpositional phrases. “After three days,” and “within five minutes” are both prepositional phrases.

Turning prepositional phrases into circumposition can be difficult because circumpositional phrases don’t usually refer to concrete locations. They must also appear either at the beginning, or in the middle, of a sentence because of the English grammar rule that no sentence should end with a preposition. Some examples of this device in English include “from now on,” “in place of,” “with a mind to” and “by virtue of.” All of these phrases are explanatory, coming either before or after the main context of a sentence. One of the reasons this device is so rare in English is that these phrases emphasize, and aren’t necessary to everyday speech.

In other languages, such as French and Mandarin, the meaning of the sentence is different from the literal translation. For instance, the French phrase à un détail près is literally translated “at one detail near.” When translated for meaning, the phrase becomes “except for one detail.” The same holds true for certain phrases in Mandarin, such as cóng bīngxīang lǐ, which is literally translated “from refrigerator inside.” Of course, a translator would bring this phrase into English by saying “from inside the refrigerator,” placing both prepositions before the prepositional object.

When looking at circumposition in foreign languages, it is relatively easy to see why it can exist more easily in some languages than others. Mandarin, for example, contains very simple, short phrases without much extra language. Other languages, like French and Spanish, sometimes tack prepositions onto word endings instead of pronouncing them as separate words. This is why foreign languages contain more instances of circumposition than English.

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