A word doesn’t necessarily belong to a particular part of speech. Depending on how it is used in a sentence, it can belong to more than one.
In this post, we’ll analyze the word about grammatically, looking at the three parts of speech it belongs to: preposition, adjective, and adverb. We’ll also look at few parts of speech it doesn’t belong to, but few erroneously think it does. And all this with plenty of examples.
Is about a preposition?
That’s the main role about plays. In all the examples as a preposition, note that about is followed by a noun (which includes noun phrase and noun clause) or pronoun, which together are called prepositional phrase.
As preposition, it is used mainly to indicate the subject of something.
(Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)
He wrote a book about machine learning. [Comment: About is followed by the noun phrase machine learning, forming the prepositional phrase about machine learning.]
What do you think about today’s game?
There is something mysterious about him.
Is about an adverb?
About can be used as an adverb in few ways. If you recall, adverbs do two things in a sentence: first, they provide background information such as on time, place, manner, degree, reason, and more; second, they comment on the entire sentence.
To show approximation
It means almost or nearly.
It’s about time to start.
I’m about done with the work.
Susan is about as tall as her father.
It is used to indicate that a number, time, or quantity is not exact.
Can we meet about 10 AM?
The painting is going to cost about $300.
A male hippopotamus weighs about 1,500 kg.
To show direction or location
It is used to indicate that someone or something is moving in many directions.
We could hear a large animal moving about outside our camp.
I have been running about since morning to arrange for today’s event.
We loitered about the streets of Cairo.
It is used to indicate that something is lying in a disorderly way, often at multiple places.
My books were lying about on the table and the bed.
The carpenter’s tools were scattered about on the floor.
It is used to indicate in or near a place.
Tom is not about. [Tom is not here.]
I’ve been waiting with the tickets in hand, but so far none of my classmates is about.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a tiger about in early hours of the day.
Is about an adjective?
About functions as an adjective when used in the phrase ‘about to do something’ to indicate that something will happen very soon. Note that the phrase falls in the predicate position (after the linking verb) and modifies the noun.
When I entered his room, she was about to join a call. [The phrase modifies the noun she.]
His face indicated that he was about to cry.
Please take your seats. The conference is about to start.
It functions as an adjective in out and about, meaning going out to different places and meeting people. Note that the phrase falls in the predicate position (after the linking verb) and modifies the noun.
The patient was out and about within two days of discharge from the hospital. [The phrase modifies the noun patient.]
I’m always out and about, handling multiple things.
Is about a verb?
Although rarely, some raise question about about being a verb. It’s not without reason though.
First, few prepositions such as out, off, down, up, near, like, and except function as verb as well, driving few to think that other prepositions might also function as verb.
Second, few prepositions are participle form of verbs, making few think that some prepositions are indeed verbs. Examples of such prepositions: barring, concerning, including, considering, notwithstanding, pending, regarding, respecting, excluding, following, according to, owing to, failing, and given.
Third, about is inextricably linked with few verbs to form what is called phrasal verbs. Examples: bring about, go about, laze about, talk about, and think about.
But prepositions are not even remotely verbs.
We can eat. We can drink. We can gobble. We can guzzle.
But can we about?
About doesn’t do any action. Hence, it’s not a verb.
Another test you can run is to check if about has past, past participle, and present participle forms like verbs do.
Can we’ve the words aboutted or aboutting, assuming it to be a regular verb?
No. Hence, it’s not a verb.
Few also confuse about with linking verb probably because of its role in linking (or joining) two parts of a sentence as a preposition. But about is not a linking verb. As we saw earlier, about acts as a preposition in linking two parts of a sentence.
Is about a conjunction?
Prepositions join two parts of a sentence: a noun or pronoun with some other word.
Conjunctions too join two parts of a sentence. Whereas a coordinating conjunction joins grammatically equal words, phrases, or clauses, a subordinating conjunction joins a dependent clause to an independent clause.
Because both join two parts of a sentence, few confuse prepositions with conjunctions.
In its role as joining two parts of a sentence, about doesn’t function as a conjunction. Here is how you arrive at this conclusion.
Step 1: Is about a coordinating conjunction?
If a list has few constituents, we can directly tally with each constituent instead of running a test. Since there are only seven coordinating conjunctions, we can straightaway ask the question: is about one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So)?
Hence, it’s not a coordinating conjunction. It’s as simple as that.
Note: you don’t need to check for correlative conjunctions as they don’t overlap with any preposition.
Step 2: Is about a subordinating conjunction?
A subordinating conjunction introduces a dependent clause (mainly an adverb clause) and joins it to an independent clause. In this example, the subordinating conjunction when introduces the underlined clause and joins it to the independent clause He wrote a book.
He wrote a book when no one else was willing to write. [When functioning as a subordinating conjunction]
Does this sentence follow the above pattern?
He wrote a book about machine learning.
It doesn’t. There is no clause introduced by about. Hence, about is not a subordinating conjunction.
In fact, as discussed in the section on preposition, a preposition is always followed by a noun or a pronoun, and that’s what is the case in this example. About is followed by the noun phrase machine learning to form the prepositional phrase about machine learning. In other words, you can say that a preposition introduces a prepositional phrase, like a subordinating conjunction introduces a dependent clause.
Since about is neither a coordinating conjunction nor a subordinating conjunction, it’s not a conjunction.
Let’s take another example.
The painting is going to cost about $300.
Now, about isn’t part of FANBOYS, implying it’s not a coordinating conjunction. Second, it’s not heading a clause, implying it’s not a subordinating conjunction. Hence, it’s not a conjunction. We saw this example earlier; about is an adverb here.