Prepositions: such short words yet with a significant role to play. Without them, our sentences wouldn't entirely make sense.
Prepositions express time, place, and location and help connect objects to the rest of the sentence. They allow you to understand the relationship between the words in the sentence.
Read on to learn more about these powerful little words and how to use them correctly. This article is part of our free online grammar book.
Let's begin by defining a preposition and taking a look at the different purposes a preposition can serve.
The word 'preposition' comes from the Latin praeponere, which means to put in front of. Appropriately so, since prepositions are placed in front of the word or group of words that they relate to.
Usually, that's a noun phrase or pronoun.
Prepositions are a little like the glue that holds a sentence together, like articles. But one thing they have that articles don't is that they provide information essential to understanding the sentence. For example, take the following sentence:
Your glasses are on your head.
If it weren't for the preposition "on," you wouldn't know where your glasses are, and there would be no point to the sentence.
Prepositions come in handy for a few different things; as such, they come in different categories based on the role they place in a sentence. A quick online search will yield results from various sources that categorize prepositions in a few different ways.
For the sake of simplicity, let's stick with the four following categories:
Some prepositions will only fall into one category, while others can be adapted to fit two or more.
Let's take a look at those one-by-one.
As you might have guessed, prepositions of time reveal information about the length of time, such as when something takes place or for how long. Here are some examples:
Let's have a look at some examples of these prepositions in a sentence:
I need to be at the gym by 6.30 as that's when my class begins.
Please be on time tonight.
She's been working here since 1998.
Prepositions of place give you information about location, such as where something is. Here's a list of a few different prepositions of place:
And here are some examples of these prepositions in a sentence:
My office is on the floor below yours.
I've placed my desk by the window so I can people-watch.
They cut the line and stood in front of me.
These prepositions indicate movement in space. Such as:
And for some examples:
The park is within walking distance, straight along the river.
You'll have to walk through the forest to get there.
Do I have to walk around the lake?
This category of prepositions serves to group together all the prepositions that don't fit the three others. Indeed, many prepositions don't describe a location, time, or direction. For example:
I've been looking forward to talking with you.
This is for the birthday party.
I'm having some difficulty concentrating on this.
So that was the simple explanation for prepositions. With all things grammar, simple is always a great way to get started with the basics.
However, language at its best and most beautiful comes alive when you take simple concepts and spice them up.
To that end, now let's look at some more complex ideas around prepositions and how to use them.
In case you need a refresher, a phrase is a group of two or more words that function together as a unit. It doesn't contain a subject or a verb and, as such, doesn't convey a complete thought and can't act on its own. It needs the rest of the sentence to make sense.
In a prepositional phrase, the "head word" of the phrase is a preposition. For example:
I didn't know she was going out with John.
"With" is the preposition, and "with John" is the prepositional phrase.
Here are some more examples with the prepositional phrases underlined:
Why is the cat hiding under the table?
Have you been to the new cafe?
I'm looking for my glasses.
Sometimes, a prepositional phrase complements a noun, and other times, a verb.
If a prepositional phrase acts upon a noun, it's called an adjectival phrase. That's because it works like an adjective (adjectives modify nouns). In the following examples, you'll see the adjectival phrase underlined. Notice how they modify the noun in the sentence.
The house is by the lake.
My office is on the floor below yours.
My favorite cafe is the one on First Avenue.
If a prepositional phrase acts upon a verb, it's called an adverbial phrase because adverbs modify verbs (as well as adjectives and other adverbs). In the following examples, the adverbial phrases (underlined) modify the verb in the sentence.
I'm looking for my glasses.
Your glasses are on your head.
You must walk around the lake to get there.
Sometimes, prepositional phrases can act as nouns if the right conditions are in place. Take the following example:
My favorite place is in bed.
"In bed" is the noun phrase here. It also happens to contain a preposition. The result? A prepositional phrase acting as a noun!
Here are some more examples:
The cat's safe place is under the table.
I'm going to the cabin by the lake.
During the meeting is not the best time to be texting.
Prepositions can be combined with a verb to form a prepositional verb. When this happens, they function as ordinary verbs do.
The verb and the preposition in a prepositional verb can't be separated, or the meaning would change. Here are some examples of prepositional verbs:
Remember participles? They're those verb forms that can be used as adjectives or to form different tenses.
There are present participles, like the following:
And there are past participles, like these:
What if I told you that these participles can sometimes be prepositions?
But how can you tell the difference between the many functions a participle can take on and a participial preposition?
Bearing in mind that prepositions are typically followed by an object, so much is true for participle prepositions, too.
Remember also that the object is always a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun, but never a verb.
Let's look at some examples of sentences containing participial prepositions (underlined).
Please address all questions regarding the report to Dan.
Not including flights, the journey took three hours.
She was texting during the meeting.
Julie just walked right past us.
Given your track record, I don't think it's a good idea.
We'll plan another date, provided the first one goes well.
According to grammar rules, there are certain words that prepositions work best with, whether that's due to convention or because of multiple-word prepositions. Let's find out more.
Some nouns and prepositions are a match made in heaven. It helps to know this because as you practice more and read high-quality English texts, you'll notice these pop-ups and can memorize them over time.
Here are some examples of nouns and prepositions that are commonly found together:
This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are many more typical noun-preposition combinations. I challenge you to find more!
Some preposition+noun combinations don't seem to make sense. Take, for example, the following sentence:
Can I speak to you in private?
The use of the preposition "in" implies location since it is, indeed, a preposition of place. However, "private" isn't a place. This is an example of a non-literal preposition.
In this context, the preposition "in" isn't to be taken literally. It's just another example of the noun and preposition matches.
Here are some more examples of non-literal prepositions:
Something we have yet to speak about is the multiple-word preposition. These are groups of words that function as a single preposition.
They can consist of the following:
conjunction + preposition ("because of")
noun + preposition ("in addition to")
and even contain articles ("at the end of")
Sometimes you'll even see two prepositions in a multiple-word preposition ("in addition to").
Here are some examples of multiple-word prepositions:
Here are some examples of these multi-word prepositions in a sentence:
I didn't sleep well last night because of all the commotion outside.
Aside from the occasional walk, he doesn't get much exercise.
We'll have time for questions at the end of the presentation.
Top tip: As well as a multi-word preposition, "At the end of the day" is also a popular English idiom meaning "ultimately."
Prepositions have superpowers. That's right: they can shapeshift and take on the role of other parts of speech, such as conjunctions, adverbs, verbs, and nouns.
Let's find out how.
I explained earlier what a phrase is. Now we'll need a refresher on clauses. A clause is part of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb. Here's an example of a clause (underlined):
Let's go home after we're done here.
The subject is "we," and the verb is "done."
So what does this have to do with prepositions? When a preposition is followed by a clause, it then takes on the role of conjunction. For example:
I've been working here ever since I graduated from university.
"I graduated from university" is a clause, so the preposition "since" becomes a conjunction.
Here are some more examples of prepositions working as conjunctions:
As she walked into the building, a sense of unease overcame her.
You must give me the recipe before I go.
We can't begin until everyone is here.
Shall we go for a walk after we've finished dinner?
Adverbs are words that modify verbs or adjectives. They often end in -ly, but not always. Here are some common adverbs:
Sometimes, you can use a preposition to modify a verb or adjective, and that's when the lines are blurred. Take the following sentence, for example:
Please, do come inside.
Here, the preposition "inside" modifies the verb "come" and, as such, is classed as an adverb.
Here are some more examples of prepositions functioning as adverbs:
Tommy's crying because he fell over.
Put your jacket on; it's cold outside.
Don't look up!
Top tip: If the preposition has an object, it stays a preposition; if it doesn't, it's an adverb.
Now that you understand the purpose a preposition serves and the different kinds that exist, let's talk about some standard usage conventions around prepositions.
Conventional rules tell us never to end a sentence with a preposition. You might have learned this in school or come across this rule in online forums or grammar texts. That's because this rule is as old as time.
Back when English, as we speak it today, was being developed - circa the 17th century - we started "borrowing" words from Latin. I put "borrowing" in quotation marks because we never actually returned them. By the same token, Latin grammar rules were transferred across to the English language.
One such rule is that prepositions should not come at the end of a sentence. Let's not forget that the Latin word for preposition, as we learned earlier, translates to "put in front of" or "place before."
But many started to argue that it was impractical to try to apply Latin rules to English. After all, they are different languages.
As such, the case was made that, in truth, it doesn't really matter.
Rules are great for general use, but as we all know, rules are sometimes there to be broken. But when should you break them? For me, it always comes down to a mixture of common sense + your judgment.
Does the sentence seem clunky if you don't end it with a preposition? Read it aloud: does it come across as forced or unnatural? Do you have to go out of your way to ensure the sentence doesn't end with a preposition to the point where it becomes totally overcomplicated?
Then don't sweat it.
However, it's worth bearing this rule in mind when writing in professional and academic contexts. Some people still believe in upholding it, so it's best to play by the rules if you're trying to impress someone with the aim of receiving employment or funding, for example.
If you're interested in finding out more, you can read this article from the Merriam-Webster dictionary that explains their stance on the topic.
Of course, if the preposition at the end of the sentence is unnecessary, you should avoid it unless you are using colloquial language. For example:
Where are you headed
I'm not sure who I'm here to meet
Where are you
Another rule of style around prepositions is to avoid using too many in one sentence. The English language generally likes to avoid lengthy sentences and unnecessary words. It's good to get straight to the point!
For example, rather than saying:
I'd really appreciate it if you could be kind enough to point me in the direction of the closest bus stop.
You could just ask:
Where's the closest bus stop?
You could even throw in a "please," and your sentence would still be much shorter while expressing the same idea.
The same applies to prepositions. Do you have a lot of them in your sentence? Could some of them be removed without altering the meaning? Could you phrase it differently? If so, it's highly recommended you do.
Take a look at the following sentence. The prepositions are underlined.
Through the analysis of the results of the research study, it was found that for people living in cities, the level of vulnerability to stress was higher.
Let's remove a bunch of prepositions from that sentence and mix it up a little.
The results showed urban living increases stress.
The second sentence conveys the same meaning and uses not one, not two, but zero prepositions! Notice how much easier it is to understand, too.
This concludes today's article about prepositions. I hope you've found this informative and that it was able to answer all your preposition-related questions.
As stated at the beginning of the article, prepositions play on both ends of the spectrum, from simple creatures to complex concepts. If you're confused about prepositions, my advice would be to take it slowly, one step at a time. Revisit this article periodically once you've mastered one section and are ready to move on to the next.
There's no rush! There will always be more to learn with grammar.
At Writingtips.org, we strive to provide a comprehensive resource for all your grammar needs. Check out our Grammar Book to learn more about the pillars of English grammar, and our Grammar Rules blog to learn to navigate complex grammatical concepts in a simple way.
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