Please have a look at the sentence below:

A car came up FROM BEHIND and overtook me.

I have done some research and came to the conclusion (whether correct or not) that 'behind' in this sentence is a prepositional adverb, which is an adverb that functions like a preposition, with the main difference being that it doesn't have an object (pronoun or noun). However, what confuses me is that, if the above is true, then it would mean that 'from', which is definitely a preposition before 'behind', doesn't have an proper object. Could 'From behind' be an adverbial phrase? Please explain in detail.

Many thanks.


(The following analysis is adapted from Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002, Ch. 7, 'Prepositions and Preposition Phrases').

  1. Preposition phrases may in some contexts 'stack', just like adjectives and adverbs:

    John went [out the door] [along the street] [to the corner].

  2. Prepositions may take other sorts of objects than noun phrases:

    • Adverb phrases: I didn't know about it until very recently.
    • Interrogative clauses: We can't agree on how to proceed.
    • Adjective phrases: They left me for dead.
    • Preposition Phrases: He emerged from behind the curtain.
  3. Prepositions may also take no object. It appears to be this use which you call an 'adverbial preposition'; CGEL calls it an intransitive preposition, analogous to an intransitive verb. (I will abbreviate this Pi.) Such a preposition may act syntactically as a complete preposition phrase (PP), just as a bare intransitive verb may act as a complete verb phrase (VP), a bare adjective as a complete adjective phrase (AdjP) or a bare noun or pronoun as a complete noun phrase (NP).

    Many such Pi in fact started as actual PP—along and before, for instance, whose first elements are worn-down forms of on and by, respectively. Others, however, are quite ordinary transitive prepositions which have evolved intransitive uses. Consider

    She put her hat on.

    Traditional grammar treats on as an adverb modifying the verb put, but contemporary grammar understands it as a Pi acting as a PP which in turn acts as a locative complement to the verb, exactly like

    She put her hat on her head.
    She put her hat on the statue.

Your sentence, then, may be understood as embedding two PP complementing came; the first PP is the bare Pi up, and the second PP is headed by from and takes a third PP, the Pi behind, as its object.

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