What part of speech is by?

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 by grammatically, looking at the three parts of speech it belongs to: preposition, adverb, and adjective. 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 by a preposition?

Yes.

That’s the main function of by. Because it’s a preposition, it is followed by a noun (which includes noun phrase and noun clause) or pronoun, and it can start a prepositional phrase.

By can be used as a preposition in following ways:

(Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

1. It is used to show the person or thing behind an action. In this use, by is nothing but a passive voice marker.

The city’s electricity supply is managed by a private organization. [Comment: The noun phrase a private organization follows the preposition, forming the prepositional phrase by a private organization.]

The investigation has been messed up by the police.

The authorities were taken aback by the ferocity of the storm.

The Alchemist was authored by Paulo Coelho.

2. It is used to show how something is done.

Few passengers from the sunk ship survived by holding on to the floating wreckage.

He rose through the ranks to occupy the highest office by dint of hard work and embracing uncomfortable assignments. [The noun phrase dint of hard work and embracing uncomfortable assignments follows the preposition, forming a prepositional phrase.]

I paid for rent by cheque.

I’ll travel to Oslo by train.

You can get the discount by filling in the discount code at checkout.

I painted the house all by myself. [All has been added for emphasis. It can be dropped though.]

3. It is used to show that something will be done not later than a particular time.

I’ll pay the bill by December 11.

Troops were withdrawn by end of the year.

Jack promised to reach the railway station by 8 PM.

The actor had given several blockbusters by 30.

4. It is used to show measurement or amount.

In the latest quarter, economy grew by mere 3 percent.

Apple sold the new model of iPhone by the millions in the first few weeks of launch.

The contract labor was paid by the day.

The deadline has been extended by a week.

5. It is used to describe someone’s profession, nature, etc.

He is a banker by profession.

He is quite laidback and easygoing by nature.

6. It is used with day and night to mean ‘during the day’ or ‘during the night’.

When deadlines are on the horizon, I work by the day and by the night.

Is by an adverb?

Yes.

By can provide few types of adverbial information. 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.

Alternatively, you can look at adverbs as modifiers of verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. In the first three use below, by modifies verb; in the fourth, it modifies adjective; and in the last, it is part of an adverb phrase.

By can be used as an adverb in following ways:

1. It points to a place.

I stopped by for a quick snack on my way to the airport. [It points to an eating joint.]

A family friend dropped by for a quick chat. [It points to a house.]

The mechanic came by in the evening. [It points to a house or a particular address.]

2. It shows movement on a path past something.

The car zoomed by the house.

The parade passed by the dais.

The last year flew by so quickly.

3. It is used to mean that something is being kept aside for future use.

The squirrels are putting nuts by in the burrow for the long winter ahead.

My parents’ generation used to put by money regularly for old age.

4. It shows proximity.

The pharmacy is close by. [Nearby]

The kid wouldn’t be alone; his parents should be close by.

5. It is used in the adverb phrase by and large to mean generally, commenting on the entire sentence.

By and large, the project has progressed smoothly.

By and large, the weather hasn’t been untoward this season.

Is by an adjective?

Yes.

By can sometimes function as an adjective to show that the noun is an incidental or side thing. Note that in this use by is placed immediately before the noun it modifies.

That’s a by issue. [It’s not the main issue. It’s a side issue.]

This is just a by room in the house. [It’s not one of the main rooms in the house.]

If we take the by road, we’ll reach earlier.

Don’t take the by comment seriously.

By has appeared so frequently as an adjective with few nouns that they’re together recognized as a single word. Examples: byelection, bylane, bylaw, byword, bystander, byproduct, bypass, byline, and bycatch.

Is by a verb?

No.

Although rarely, some raise question about by 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, by is inextricably linked with few verbs to form what is called phrasal verbs. Examples: abide by, come by, drop by, fly by, get by, pass by, stand by, stop by, and swear by.

But by is not even remotely a verb.

We can play. We can write. We can drink. We can move.

But can we by?

By doesn’t do any action. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Another test you can run is to check if by has past, past participle, and present participle forms like verbs do.

Can we’ve the words byed or bying, assuming it to be a regular verb?

No. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Few also confuse by with linking verb probably because of its role in linking (or joining) two parts of a sentence as a preposition and its shortness (just two letters) that is similar to the most common linking verb be. But by is not a linking verb. As we saw earlier, by acts as a preposition in linking two parts of a sentence.

Is by a conjunction?

No.

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, by doesn’t function as a conjunction. Here is how you arrive at this conclusion.

Step 1: Is by 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 by one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So)?

No.

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 by 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 while introduces the underlined clause and joins it to the independent clause Apple sold the new model of iPhone.

Apple sold the new model of iPhone while it was still selling the earlier models. [While functioning as a subordinating conjunction]

Does this sentence follow the above pattern?

Apple sold the new model of iPhone by the million in the first few weeks of launch.

It doesn’t. There is no clause introduced by by. Hence, by 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. By is followed by the noun phrase the million to form the prepositional phrase by the million. In other words, you can say that a preposition introduces a prepositional phrase, like a subordinating conjunction introduces a dependent clause.

Another example:

Troops were withdrawn when the year ended. [Subordinating conjunction. When introduces a clause.]

Troops were withdrawn by end of the year. [Preposition. By doesn’t introduce a clause. It is followed by the noun phrase end of year.]

Since by is neither a coordinating conjunction nor a subordinating conjunction, it’s not a conjunction.

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