Prepositions: The Matchmakers of Grammar
Published February 26, 2019. Updated March 22, 2021.
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—for example: at, to, in, of, for and with. However, don’t be fooled by their size and the size of their gang—this 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.
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):
- The dog sat on the chair.
- She is at the library.
- The research paper is in my bag.
- Take it with you.
- Give the book to me.
- I sat beside them.
- 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).
- After having a shower, I left.
- I put on my glasses before reading.
- He told the joke without laughing.
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.
- 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’re going out for dinner on our anniversary.
- Other examples include before, after, past, during, minus, plus and until.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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—the GPS words of grammar! Don’t let this confuse you, though. They can be super useful in showing location in a physical—or concrete—sense. However, they can also be used to convey more metaphorical or abstract meanings.
- I sat between them. (i.e., took a place between two people.)
- 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:
|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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.’
- 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—as we already know—in 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).
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’t.
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.
- 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—which 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.
- 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’s 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.
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.
- 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.
While starting a sentence with this word type doesn’t 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—that 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.
- 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—we won’t tell the grammar police if you don’t!
- 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.
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’s 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.
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?
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