Student Stumper 30: Is “rather than” a preposition?

Click to listen to my introduction to Student Stumper 30.

QUESTION: Is “rather than” a preposition?

ANSWER: Good question! Let’s study some of the examples from Student Stumper 29 and see if we can come to a conclusion.

First, let’s not confuse rather than with would rather (…than).

  • EXAMPLE 1: She said she‘d rather stay home than go out.

In the above example, we see the semi-modal would rather expressing preference, and two alternatives are named and separated by the preposition than. Now look at examples 2-4:

  • EXAMPLE 2: I’ll watch a romantic comedy rather than an action movie any day of the week.
  • EXAMPLE 3: I forgot my glasses at home, so rather than straining to see from the back, I took a seat towards the front.
  • EXAMPLE 4: Thank you, but I’ve decided to buy these rather than those.

I’d argue that in all the statements above we could replace rather than with instead of. Instead of is a preposition with the meaning “in place of”. In all three examples above, an indirect object follows rather than: a noun phrase (an action movie), a gerund phrase (straining to see from the back), and a pronoun (those). In meaning and in use, rather than is a preposition in examples 2-4.

Now for the tricky part. Take a look at these examples from Student Stumper 29:

  • EXAMPLE 5:  I decided go out rather than stay home.
  • EXAMPLE 6: Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie rather than go dancing.

The idea of alternatives is still present in these examples; however, we can no longer replace rather than with instead of. The words that follow rather than are not in the form of an indirect object. We do not have a noun, pronoun, or gerund, but the base form of a verb. As I think about these examples more, I’m forced to consider an overlap of word classes. In the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2007), Biber et al address the sometimes blurred borderline between prepositions and subordinating conjunctions (2.4.5.3 Table 2.5 and 2.4.8.3 Table 2.7). In examples 5 and 6, are we seeing rather than used as a subordinator? That would explain the possible use of a base verb after rather than.

All this reflection is interesting, but how can we help our students decide if a gerund or base verb should be used after rather than? Just as we see “instead of” as synonymous with rather than the preposition, could we view “and not” as synonymous with rather than the subordinator? Let’s test this out:

  • EXAMPLE 5: I decided go out rather than stay home.= I decided to go out and not stay home.
  • EXAMPLE 6: Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie rather than go dancing.= Tonight I think I’d like to go to a movie and not go dancing.

I think it would be safe to teach students that rather than helps express a negative alternative, that is, an alternative which is not preferred to another. Rather than can behave like a preposition or a subordinating conjunction, but in practice, students should simply know that this two-word expression can be followed by a noun or pronoun. In additional, it can be followed by a gerund if “instead of” can serve as a substitute, or it can be followed by a base verb if “and not” can serve as a substitution.

Comments?

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Edwin Ashworth says:

    Hello, Jennifer. Thanks for the detailed treatment. I think that this is one of those areas of English we wish didn’t exist when we’re wearing our analytical hats.

    The ‘replacement test’ (instead of / rather than) gives idiosyncratic results. ‘We decided to rent instead of buy’ is quite commonly used, and shows that ‘instead of’ has a life outside prepositionality.

    I’d say that in your {EXAMPLE 3: I forgot my glasses at home, so rather than straining to see from the back, I took a seat towards the front.} the -ing form (the word ‘straining’) is closer to the verbal end than the nounal of the verb – noun continuum. (I avoid the term ‘gerund’ as it has conflicting definitions.) I think ‘straining (to see)’ pre-echoes ‘took a seat’. This semantically is the ‘and not’ usage again. (But isn’t that coordination?)

    1. Hello Edwin,

      Thank you for continuing the discussion. I wish I could be someone who always gave definitive answers to tricky grammar questions, but I admit I cannot be that person! More than anything, I am one who welcomes reflections and offers some of my own in return. I love how you view the verb-noun continuum. I never thought of it quite like that.

      In the end, I am less concerned about labels and more concerned about helping students produce correct (standard) speech. I think if we can provide a few models and give them contextualized practice with the structures, then we are on the right track.

      You might also like the discussion on FANBOYS in my April 18 post.

      Kind regards,
      Jennifer

  2. Geof says:

    I have to take exception to two comments in this discussion. I am not familiar with any ambiguity in the term gerund, though I admit that the formality of the term is off-putting to students, and “verbal noun” better conveys the understanding they need to master.

    I think that “indirect object” in the discussion of Ex. 5 & 6 is a red herring; there is no question of whether an indirect object could occur in these constructions.

    To contribute to the main thread of this discussion, I would advise students to go ahead and use the unambiguously prepositional “instead of” in these cases, to avoid offending both common sense and formal grammar.

    1. Hello Geof. Thank you for bringing this discussion back to life. The tricky grammar topics I address in my Student Stumpers are never “closed cases” in my book. I’m often still searching for answers, or at least open to more input. Mostly, I like to exchange ideas with other teachers about how we can handle classroom discussion of these topics.

      Looking back at this post, I think we could also consider the possibility of the so-called bare infinitive and infinitive complements, a topic I still need to study more and gain more confidence with!

      Believe it or not, there is debate over the term gerund in some circles, and there are some who choose not to use the term. Some say “the -ing form” or “verbal noun,” for instance. I’ve also seen/read presentations that challenged my own understanding. How some teachers defined gerunds and used them in examples didn’t completely match my own presentations concerning gerunds and participles. I don’t think it’s a matter of right or wrong, but again it’s more about what information is going to help students master the grammar in order to communicate effectively. One strategy is to do as you suggested: play it safe with “instead of.”

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Kind regards!

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