Oblique predicative constructions in English

by Bas Aarts (University College London)

English allows for a predicative phrase to occur after the prepositions for and as in constructions like the following:

(1) We took her for a friend.
(2) They left her for dead.

(3) I regarded her as a genius.
(4) She rates his work as excellent.

The phrases introduced by for and as in these constructions introduce either a noun phrase or adjective phrase constituent that is predicated of the postverbal noun phrase in each case. I will call the V + NP + [PP P+NP/AdjP] construction the oblique predicative construction, and the complement of the preposition an oblique predicative complement. The construction with for is the older one, and is found in many unrelated languages, including Gothic, Greek, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and German, as Jespersen (1909-49, IV: 386) has shown.

In this paper I will trace the history of predicative oblique constructions involving for and as and a number of additional prepositions from Old English onwards. I will then discuss the huge range of constructions in which predicative for appears, and how these differ from constructions with as, which gradually became dominant in Present-Day English. By looking at a range of data I will investigate whether the claim that for and as are interchangeable, made by the OED, Jespersen and Poutsma, is valid. I will argue that for a number of reasons it is unsustainable. I will look at one of these reasons in detail, namely the observation that for has acquired a subtly specialised meaning which has come to differentiate it from as.


This paper will be read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Cambridge, Murray Edwards College, Buckingham House Seminar Room, on Saturday, 15 June 2019, 4.15pm.