An action noun linked to a second noun by “by” (or irregular equivalent) is like a verb with its subject
ACTION NOUNS AND THEIR PARTNER PREPOSITIONS
In this blog, “action nouns” are nouns that are made from verbs and express verb-like meanings. For example, movement is made from the verb MOVE and can mean “moving”, and existence is made from EXIST and can mean “existing”. Full details of action nouns can be read about in the posts 14. Action Outcomes and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.
It is not just meanings that action nouns share with verbs. They can also be linked with their subjects and objects – other nouns that either initiate or are affected by the action or state being expressed. These other nouns cannot be called the “subjects” and “objects” of action nouns as they can of verbs, because association with a verb is a defining feature of those terms. However, they can still be called “subject-like” and “object-like” because if the action noun is changed into its equivalent active verb, they will become either its subject or object.
English has various ways of marking a noun as subject-like or object-like. One of these is with prepositions – special ones in each case. In this post I wish to examine what these prepositions are with subject-like nouns, and how they can be used. The prepositions needed for object-like nouns are considered separately in the post 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1. For details of prepositions in general, see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions.
THE REGULAR SUBJECT-SHOWING PREPOSITION
The characteristics of verb subjects are analysed within this blog in the post 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices. In the following sentence, audiences is the subject of the verb will enjoy:
(a) Audiences will enjoy a presentation more if visual aids are used.
The action noun related to will enjoy here is enjoyment. How might audiences be linked with it in the following sentence?
(b) The enjoyment of a presentation … will increase if visual aids are used.
You need, of course, to use a preposition, here saying by audiences. You could also change the order of the words to begin Audience enjoyment …, placing the subject-like noun directly in front of the action noun (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns). Sometimes you can even add an apostrophe ending to the first noun (Audiences’ enjoyment … – see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings).
The use of by with action nouns is very similar to that with passive verbs. In both cases the following noun would have been a subject if the action had been expressed by an active verb, and in both cases the whole by phrase can be left out without making the sentence ungrammatical. It is indeed this possibility of leaving out by phrases that may help to explain the frequency of action nouns in academic and professional writing: they enable avoidance of undesirable subjects (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). The use of by with action nouns also resembles its use before the author of a work or project, as in a film by Spielberg or a painting by Matisse.
The preposition that has to be used to mark a subject-like noun is very commonly by, but not always: various other prepositions are sometimes found. We could say as a result that by is the “regular” subject-showing preposition, while the others are “irregular”. As might be expected, the need for by with an action noun is rarely a problem for speakers of other languages trying to learn English, whereas the need for a different subject-showing preposition can cause errors. It is this latter need that the rest of this post is about.
IRREGULAR SUBJECT PREPOSITIONS
Before considering alternatives to subject-showing by, it is important to rule out a usage that looks like an alternative but is not really. This is the usage that is possible with nouns possessing both an action and a non-action meaning (see 14. Action Outcomes). The noun discovery is a two-meaning noun like this; it can mean not only “discovering” but also “a thing that has been discovered”. With such nouns it is common to see by with the action meaning and of with the non-action one (e.g. America was the discovery OF Columbus). This of is not a subject preposition, though, because there is no action for it to introduce a subject of.
There are at least two different types of action noun that require a different subject-showing preposition from by: desire nouns and nouns derived from intransitive verbs.
1. Usage after Desire Nouns
A common desire noun is a request (derived from the verb TO REQUEST). Both object-like and subject-like nouns used with it need an irregular preposition. The subject-showing one is of:
(c) The Government met the request OF banks for more time.
It would also be possible to use from with this particular noun, but I want to highlight of because it is needed with various other nouns with similar meaning to REQUEST. These include demand, dependence, desire, call, liking, longing, love, need, respect, taste and yearning (it is true that only some of these actually express actions rather than states, but I would still call the entire list “action” nouns because they mean what their corresponding verbs mean).
2. Usage after Nouns Derived from Intransitive Verbs
Intransitive verbs cannot have an object and cannot be made passive (see 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive). Here are some intransitive verbs that are easily made into action nouns: APPEAR, EMERGE, OCCUR, FLOW, DETERIORATE, FUNCTION and PROCEED. The corresponding nouns are appearance, emergence (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #3), occurrence, flow, deterioration, functioning and procession. If you use one of these nouns with the subject of the action, you must normally use of, e.g.
(d) The appearance OF the sun made a difference.
Some nouns, such as movement, come from verbs that are sometimes transitive and sometimes intransitive (see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to Be Passive). This connection is reflected in the fact that both of and by are possible with their subjects, depending on whether or not the verb would have had an object, like this:
(e) The movement OF road vehicles is recorded on video.
(f) The movement of goods BY road vehicles is increasing.
In (e) the subject-showing preposition has to be of because road vehicles is the subject of the action (they cause the moving) and there is no object (they move themselves); while in (f) the subject preposition is by because there is also a noun (goods) corresponding to the object of the transitive verb move.
The fact that of can show both the subject and the object of an action, depending on whether the action noun’s verb would have had an object, sometimes allows a double meaning. Consider this:
(g) The movement of animals presents problems.
If movement corresponds to the intransitive use of move, animals is a subject and the sentence is about the problems presented by animals moving themselves from one place to another. However, if the transitive use of move applies, animals is an object, and the sentence is about the problems presented when someone (a subject with by that has been left unmentioned) has to transport animals. For more on double meanings, see 124. Structures with a Double Meaning.
3. Usage after Special Nouns Derived from Intransitive Verbs
Some nouns derived from an intransitive verb need in instead of of – and cause understandable grammar errors as a result (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1). Usually nouns like this have a similar meaning to RISE and FALL, e.g.
(h) The markets have seen a rise IN share prices.
Other nouns like this are INCREASE, IMPROVEMENT, JUMP, LEAP, CLIMB, GAIN, DECREASE, DROP, SLUMP, CRASH, PLUNGE, TUMBLE, DIP, REDUCTION and CHANGE. For a fuller list, see 115. Describing Numerical Data.
Like movement above, some of these nouns correspond to verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive. When the corresponding verb is transitive, there is no irregularity: the subject then has by, the object of. Compare:
(f) There has been an increase IN taxes.
(g) There has been an increase OF taxes (BY the Government).
What is different here compared to nouns like movement is that leaving out the by phrase does not create ambiguity: of still shows an original object and not a subject. Most writers able to choose between an increase in (+ subject) and an increase of (+ object) seem to prefer the former. In using it, there is a need to avoid confusion with increasing (see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly).
Now here is a small exercise for readers who wish to test their command of subject prepositions.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: SUBJECT-SHOWING PREPOSITIONS
Rewrite the following sentences so that they contain the action nouns shown in brackets and begin with the underlined words (answers below).
1. If a fire has destroyed a forest, it is not a total disaster. (DESTRUCTION).
2. Unauthorised people may not purchase drugs. (PURCHASE)
3. Companies may fail after sales drop. (DROP)
4. We require your cooperation so that our support may continue. (CONTINUATION)
5. The government denies that the police accept bribes. (ACCEPTANCE)
6. Local councils can only maintain roads if sufficient funding exists. (MAINTENANCE … EXISTENCE).
ANSWERS (some variations are possible)
1. Destruction of a forest by a fire is not a total disaster.
2. Purchase of drugs by unauthorised people is prohibited (not allowed).
3. Companies may fail after a drop in sales.
4. Continuation of our support depends on (requires, needs) your cooperation.
5. The government denies the acceptance of bribes by the police.
6. Maintenance of roads by local councils depends on (requires, needs) the existence of sufficient funding.