Prepositions: The Matchmakers of Grammar

This word type gives itself away from the start with its name. What does preposition mean? It literally means a word in preposition, i.e., positioned before something. Usually it’s positioned before a noun or a pronoun but it can also come before a phrase or even a gerund¬†verb¬†to create a prepositional phrase. The preposition definition is that it’s a word which is usually placed before an object, to show a relationship between the object and the rest of the sentence.

There are around 150 of these little matchmakers in the English language, which, although that might seem like a lot, is nothing compared to the endless list of nouns and pronouns that they pair up with. Many of these words are also super short‚ÄĒfor example:¬†at, to, in, of, for¬†and¬†with. However, don‚Äôt be fooled by their size and the size of their gang‚ÄĒthis word type is super powerful and has the strength in just two letters to change the entire meaning of a sentence! This guide should help you with all you need to know about this category of words. However, if you wish to read more on their pairing with pronouns specifically, you’ll find this¬†useful reference¬†online.

You can also get help with checking your grammar and generating citations at EasyBib Plus, where our handy tool can create citations in APA and MLA format, plus many more styles.

A Beautiful Relationship

We can answer the question ‘what is a preposition?’ by looking closer at their function, which is¬†to show or suggest a relationship between the word or phrase that they precede, and the rest of the sentence. They’re the bridging words of a sentence, forming essential relational links between one part and another. It would be very difficult to communicate effectively without these clever little linking words.

Let’s look at some examples of word types that can be the object of the preposition (the word that usually comes after it):

Nouns

  • The dog sat¬†on¬†the¬†chair.
  • She is¬†at¬†the¬†library.
  • The¬†research¬†paper is¬†in¬†my¬†bag.

Pronouns

  • Take it¬†with¬†you.
  • Give the¬†book¬†to¬†me.
  • I sat¬†beside¬†them.

Phrases

  • My house is¬†between¬†two big houses.
  • I hid¬†under¬†a¬†huge king-sized bed.
  • Opposite¬†my aunt’s shop¬†is a park.

The Wild Card

The wild card of the bunch is the gerund verb, although it’s not really that wild since the typical function of a gerund is to act as the¬†noun¬†in a sentence (usually representing an activity).

For example:

Verb Noun
jog jogging
have having

Gerund Verbs

  • After¬†having¬†a shower, I left.
  • I put on my glasses¬†before¬†reading.
  • He told the joke¬†without¬†laughing.

Relationship Goals

The aim of the preposition is to show relationships between nouns, pronouns, phrases and gerund verbs, and the rest of the words in the sentence. There are various different types of relationships that they can show. The two most common are time and place.

Time

For example:

  • At¬†— used to discuss clock times, holidays and festivals, and specific time frames.
    • I go to bed¬†at¬†night.
    • We eat turkey¬†at¬†Christmas.
    • Class starts¬†at¬†9am.
  • In¬†— used to discuss months of the year, seasons, years, general times of day, and longer periods of time.
    • I go on vacation¬†in¬†July.
    • In¬†the past, people didn’t have electricity.
    • I’m going jogging¬†in¬†the¬†morning.
  • On¬†— used to discuss days of the week, specific dates, and special days or anniversaries.
    • On¬†Tuesdays, I meet with a friend.
    • My new job starts¬†on¬†March 1st.
    • We‚Äôre going out for dinner¬†on¬†our anniversary.
  • Other examples include¬†before, after, past, during, minus, plus¬†and¬†until.

Place

You’ll notice that the most commonly used prepositions of place are the same as the above. However, they’re used in a very different context.

For example:

  • At¬†— used to discuss a specific place or point.
    • I waited for her¬†at¬†school.
    • My car is¬†at¬†the¬†garage.
    • At¬†home, we like to relax.
  • In¬†— used to discuss an enclosed place/a place with boundaries.
    • I was born¬†in¬†London.
    • My bags are¬†in¬†the¬†car.
    • Paris is¬†in¬†France.
  • On¬†— used to discuss something positioned on top of something.
    • The dog is¬†on¬†the¬†sofa.
    • My car is¬†on¬†the¬†driveway.
  • On¬†can also be used to denote place in a looser, less literal sense, for example:
    • I saw it¬†on¬†TV.
    • What’s¬†on¬†the¬†menu?
    • I’m staying at the house¬†on¬†the¬†lake.

Looking at this list of prepositions as an example, we can see that some are interchangeable, up to a point.

For example:

I waited for her at school.

I waited for her in school.

Both of the above could be taken to have the same meaning. However, in conveys a more specific place, e.g., inside the school, while at could mean inside or outside the school.

Position and Possession

These relationship words are also commonly used to show position and possession.

Position

Similar to the place category, these are used to show a specific position of something or someone.

Examples include: aboard, above, alongside, amid, among, amongst, beside, beyond, by, down, inside, near, opposite, outside, over, past, through, under, up, within.

  • The plane flew high¬†above¬†the¬†city.
  • My dog sat¬†beside¬†me.
  • The water rushed¬†through¬†the¬†pipe.

Possession

These words show that something or someone belongs to something or someone else.

Examples include: of, with, to, by, for.

  • Dublin is the capital city¬†of¬†Ireland.
  • He’s acting like a dog¬†with¬†a¬†bone.
  • The cake was baked¬†by¬†Sarah.

Purpose, Comparison and Direction

This word type can also be used to show relationships of purpose, comparison and direction.

  • Purpose¬†— The book is¬†for¬†reading.
  • Comparison¬†— The car runs¬†like¬†a¬†dream.
  • Direction¬†— Walk¬†to¬†the¬†edge.

Abstract vs Concrete

Because they’re commonly used to denote something’s location in time, place, position or possession, some people also define preposition words as location words‚ÄĒthe GPS words of grammar! Don’t let this confuse you, though. They can be super useful in showing location in a physical‚ÄĒor concrete‚ÄĒsense. However, they can also be used to convey more metaphorical or abstract meanings.

For example:

  • Concrete
    • I sat¬†between¬†them. (i.e., took a place between two people.)
  • Abstract
    • I ate a snack¬†between¬†meals. (i.e., between mealtimes — the snack wasn’t positioned literally between two meals.)
    • I was caught¬†between¬†them. (i.e., involved unwillingly in an argument between two people.)
    • We drank it¬†between¬†us. (i.e., two or more people shared a drink.)

Further examples include:

Concrete Abstract
I’ll see you¬†at¬†school¬†. You can spend the afternoon¬†at¬†leisure¬†.
Put it¬†in¬†the¬†bag¬†. Let’s meet¬†in¬†private¬†.

In the above examples, the rest of the sentence should allow you to determine whether the meaning is abstract or concrete. In some cases, however, the exact same sentence can have two very different meanings, all because of the prepositional word. This is one of grammar’s sneaky little tricks and it can be very confusing for those learning English.

For example:

  • Stop looking around. We’re all¬†behind¬†you. (We’re literally standing behind you.)
  • You can do it! We’re all¬†behind¬†you. (We’re all giving you our support.)

If the question ‘what are prepositions’ still puzzles you, this¬†useful link¬†might help.

Powerful Preposition Words

The above is a great example of how the same word can be used in different contexts to mean completely different things. However, switching these words also has the power to change the entire meaning of the same sentence.

For example:

  • I go to work¬†after¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†before¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†alongside¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†despite¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†near¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†opposite¬†you.
  • I go to work¬†with¬†you.

Double Agents

Hiding among the prepositions list are several of those sneaky grammar double agents, a.k.a. words that crossover into another category. These include after, as, before, since and until, which also function as subordinate conjunctions.

When a sentence has two clauses, the subordinate conjunction is used to connect the independent and the dependent (subordinate) clause. The subordinate clause usually contains the subordinate conjunction, a subject and a verb.

For example:

  • I won’t go to bed¬†until¬†I’ve finished this essay.
  • After¬†I left the party, I went for a burger.

In the above examples, these words function as conjunctions as they’re followed by clauses.

But What About But?

While¬†but¬†does find itself on the preposition list, it only functions in this way when being used to mean ‘except.’

For example:

  • They all went to class¬†except¬†Billy.
  • They all went to class¬†but¬†Billy.

It’s used far more commonly as a¬†conjunction. In fact, it’s one of the three main coordinating conjunctions (conjunctions are used to join words, main clauses or sentences of equal importance):¬†and, but¬†and¬†or.

Adverbial Double Agents

Additionally, we also have a word type known as prepositional adverbs, which can act as an¬†adverb¬†(a word modifying a verb, adjective or other adverb) in a sentence. The way to tell the difference is that adverbs don’t need an object, while‚ÄĒas we already know‚ÄĒin its true form this word type will usually come before the object (although there’s an exception to this rule, which we’ll look at later).

Examples include: about, above, across, after, along, around, before, behind, below, between, beyond, by, down, in, inside, near, on, opposite, out, outside, over, past, round, through, throughout, under, up, within, without.

This word type is commonly added to verbs to make phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are idiomatic phrases (which means that the compound has a different meaning to the words taken separately).

Example:

Can you sit down?

There’s no object telling you what to sit down on, which makes¬†down¬†in this context an adverb.

Examples of phrasal verbs:

My dad’s in the military, so we¬†move¬†around¬†a lot.

Please, will you shut up!

Grammar crossover can be really confusing, but it’s important to understand what’s a preposition and what isn‚Äôt.

Two-Word Teams

Although most examples of prepositions are single words, there are some exceptions that work as two-word, or even three-word, teams.

These include: because of, next to, on top of, in place of, in addition to, in front of, up to.

For example:

  • We moved there¬†because of¬†the¬†good schools.
  • I threw the blanket¬†on top of¬†the¬†bed.
  • I gave a presentation¬†in front of¬†100 people.

Don’t get these confused with prepositional phrases, which will also contain an object. We’ll look at phrases now in more detail.

What is a Prepositional Phrase?

The prepositional phrase definition is, very simply, that it’s one of the preposition examples plus the object (the noun,¬†pronoun, gerund verb or phrase).

You might also throw in a modifier or two‚ÄĒwhich will often be an¬†adjective¬†as they’re the word type commonly used to modify nouns. These can help to make your prepositional phrase more interesting.

Let’s look at the examples on this prepositional phrase list:

  • I left my coat¬†at home.
  • I like to relax¬†by reading.
  • I went to the cinema¬†with Peter.

Now let’s add some modifiers to make things more interesting:

  • I went to the cinema¬†with my best friend Peter.
  • I like to relax¬†in my beautiful, colorful garden.
  • I sat¬†on the huge, blue, velvet chair.

Looking at the function of these phrases, you’ll notice that they often answer the questions¬†which one, how, when, why¬†or¬†where, thus acting as the adjective or adverb of the sentence. When acting as the adjective, the phrase modifies the noun or pronoun. When acting as the adverb, the phrase modifies the verb, adjective or another adverb.

For example:

  • Adverbial function¬†— I like to relax (where?)¬†in my beautiful, colorful garden.
  • Adverbial function¬†— Sarah grabbed a coffee from the canteen (when?)¬†before class.
  • Adverbial function¬†— We drove to school (how?)¬†in my shiny, red sports car.

Now compare the above with these examples:

  • Adjectival function¬†— I like the bag (which one?)¬†with the leather straps.
  • Adjectival function¬†— The cake (which one?)¬†with chocolate frosting¬†is the nicest.
  • Adjectival function¬†— The car (which one?)¬†on the driveway¬†was covered in snow.

Identifying adverbial and adjectival phrases can be tricky. You can¬†learn more here¬†if you’re struggling to understand the difference between them.

The Position of the Preposition

Placement is key when it comes to this word type, as it‚Äôs defined by the fact that it’s positioned before the object. However, there are exceptions to this rule! Let’s take a look.

The Middle Man

You’ll notice from the examples that this word type often sits most comfortably in the middle of the sentence, which is the logical place for a linking word designed to show a relationship.

  • My car is¬†at¬†the¬†garage.
  • I work¬†with¬†Peter.
  • The cat sat¬†on¬†the¬†mat.
  • I rode my bike¬†across¬†the¬†field.
  • I like to eat¬†after¬†12¬†noon.

Great Beginnings

However, there are lots of times when it’s possible to mix the order of your sentence up, placing the phrase right at the beginning. Doing this can make your prose more interesting. It can also be used as a tool to place emphasis on the phrase.

For example:

  • On¬†Sundays, we go to church.
  • After¬†dinner, I have to do the dishes.
  • In¬†my¬†car, I turn the music up loud.
  • Over¬†the¬†summer, Melissa worked two part-time jobs.
  • At¬†midnight, I went to bed.
  • During¬†the¬†race, the runner stopped twice for water.

Notice that you’ll usually need to place a comma after the phrase. If you find yourself pausing naturally when saying the sentence out loud, pop a comma in. If the phrase is longer than four words, a comma will definitely be needed.

Informal Endings

While starting a sentence with this word type doesn‚Äôt raise any eyebrows, attempting to end a sentence with one can quickly alert the grammar police! After all, this breaks the first rule of this word type‚ÄĒthat they’re positioned before another word!

Some rules are meant to be broken, however, and there are some sentences that work really well with what’s sometimes known as a stranded preposition tagged onto the end.

For example:

  • The cake needs to be paid¬†for.
  • Who are you talking¬†to?
  • Which room are we having breakfast¬†in?

If you try to place them before the noun, pronoun, gerund or phrase, you’ll find yourself with a sentence that either doesn’t make sense or sounds too formal for modern language. In this case, you can get away with ending a sentence with a preposition‚ÄĒwe won’t tell the grammar police if you don’t!

For example:

  • Paid¬†for¬†the cake needs to be.
  • To¬†whom are you talking?
  • In¬†which room are we having breakfast?

Do these sentences remind you of a certain green Star Wars character or someone from 100 years ago, by any chance? They definitely don’t represent how we would naturally form sentences today.

The Not-So-Long List

There are only around 150 English language words in this category, which is actually not that many when you consider how many different nouns and pronouns there are.

Examples include:

Above, across, after, along, alongside, amid, amidst, among, amongst, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, besides, between, beyond, by, circa, concerning, considering, despite, down, during, except, excluding, failing, following, for, from, given, in, inside, into, like, minus, near, notwithstanding, of, off, on, onto, opposite, outside, over, past, per, regarding, round, save, since, than, through, to, toward, towards, under, underneath, unlike, until, up, upon, versus, via, with, within, without.

Let’s take a look at some of the more unusual ones in context:

In the following context, the word save has the same meaning as except or but.

I like all the cakes, save the chocolate cupcake.

In this context, the word besides also has the same meaning as except or but.

I enjoy all sports besides swimming.

In this context, the word given has the same meaning as despite.

I’m feeling well,¬†given¬†the circumstances.

In this context, the word notwithstanding also has the same meaning as despite.

Sally has plenty of time for sports, notwithstanding her busy job.

Although the list of this word type is limited, they can be used to form an endless number of phrases.

Prepositional phrase examples include:

  • I hung a picture¬†above the fireplace.
  • I swam¬†across the river.
  • After midnight, I turn into a werewolf.
  • I walked¬†along the road.
  • The stream ran¬†alongside the path.
  • Amid the chaos, I remained calm.
  • I hid¬†among the trees.
  • The shop is¬†around the corner.
  • I don’t like to go out late¬†at night.
  • Sarah always meets me¬†before school.
  • It’s¬†behind you!
  • The mole burrowed¬†below ground.
  • The dolphin dove¬†beneath the surface.
  • Between them, they ate the whole cake.
  • I gazed out to the horizon¬†beyond the sea.
  • I put the lamp¬†by the chair.
  • The jewelry was made¬†circa 1980.
  • I’m writing¬†concerning your behavior.
  • The festival went well,¬†considering the weather.
  • The park was busy,¬†despite the rain.
  • I dropped it¬†down the hatch.
  • I sneezed¬†during the service.
  • Everyone went¬†except Sarah.
  • Jennifer was happy to see everyone,¬†excluding her mother.
  • Failing that,¬†we’ll go tomorrow.
  • There was a meet and greet¬†following the show.
  • I’d love a computer¬†for Christmas.
  • You were sent flowers¬†from your best friend.
  • I let the dog come¬†inside the house.
  • Into the woods¬†we go.
  • The ceremony went¬†like a dream.
  • It‚Äôs five¬†minus one.
  • I live¬†near the park.
  • He wiped his nose on the sleeve¬†of his coat.
  • It rolled¬†off the bed.
  • She threw the towel¬†onto the floor.
  • The school is¬†opposite the shop.
  • Birds fly¬†over the rainbow.
  • Go¬†past the stream¬†to find the field.
  • Make dinner as¬†per my instructions.
  • I need to speak to you¬†regarding your essay.
  • She’s been¬†ill since last year.
  • Crawl¬†through the tunnel.
  • Let’s go¬†to Paris¬†on holiday.
  • The moth was flying¬†towards the light.
  • I snuggled¬†under the blanket.
  • Water rushed¬†underneath the bridge.
  • I’m always on time,¬†unlike some people.
  • I’m not going shopping¬†until tomorrow.
  • The cat climbed¬†up the tree.
  • It was Yankees¬†versus Red Sox.
  • Let’s go home¬†via town.
  • I love walking¬†with my dog.
  • She left home¬†without her coat.

Still Pondering?

If you’re still pondering the definition of preposition, there are some fantastic study books available to help you find¬†more info¬†on this word type. This element of the English language is super useful, but it can cause some confusion. The crossover with conjunctions and adverbs can prove especially tricky, so you might want to read more to ensure you fully understand the difference.

Need Help With Grammar?

EasyBib Plus can give you extra peace of mind when it comes to using correct grammar in your papers and essays. Simply upload your work to our easy to use grammar checker and receive edit suggestions before you hand in your paper. If you‚Äôre looking to brush up on your grammar skills, we have numerous links included on this page. Check out two right here:¬†interjection¬†and¬†determiner. You can also use the handy¬†plagiarism checker¬†and the citation generator to ensure that you don’t commit the cardinal college sin of unintentional plagiarism. We can help you create your citations in a wide choice of different styles, including MLA or¬†APA format, making this essential task much easier and far less time-consuming‚ÄĒthe ultimate essay-writing win!