What is a preposition?
A preposition is a word used to link nouns, pronouns, or phrases to other words within a sentence. They act to connect the people, objects, time and locations of a sentence. Prepositions are usually short words, and they are normally placed directly in front of nouns. In some cases, you’ll find prepositions in front of gerund verbs.
A nice way to think about prepositions is as the words that help glue a sentence together. They do this by expressing position and movement, possession, time and how an action is completed.
Indeed, several of the most frequently used words in all of English, such as of, to, for, with, on and at, are prepositions. Explaining prepositions can seem complicated, but they are a common part of language and most of us use them naturally without even thinking about it.
In fact, it’s interesting to note that prepositions are regarded as a ‘closed class’ of words in the English language. This means, unlike verbs and nouns, no new words are added to this group over time. In a way, it reflects their role as the functional workhorse of the sentence. They are unassuming and subtle, yet vitally important to the meaning of language.
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There are two very important rules to remember when using prepositions. Because they are somewhat vague, learning about prepositions and using them correctly in sentences takes practice. Because 1:1 translation is often impossible when dealing with prepositions, even the most advanced English students have some difficulty at first.
- The first rule is that to make sentences clear, specific prepositions are needed. For example, the preposition in means one thing and the preposition on cannot substitute for it in all cases. Some prepositions are interchangeable but not always. The correct preposition means one particular thing and using a different proposition will give the sentence a very different meaning. I want to see you in the house now, Bill! means something very different from I want to see you on the house now, Bill! In the house means Bill should go through the door, walk inside, and stand in the hall or living room. On the house means Bill would need to get a ladder and climb to the roof where he would be on top of the house.
- The second rule for using prepositions is that prepositions are generally followed by nouns or pronouns. There was a time in the past when teachers held strictly to this rule, but it made for some clunky sentences. I am seeking someone I can depend on ends with the preposition on, so people who insisted that sentences shouldn’t end with a preposition would be forced to use convoluted and unnatural phrasing. To avoid ending that sentence above with a preposition, you’d have to say, someone I can depend on is whom I am seeking.
- There are more than 100 prepositions in the English language. In addition, there are endless possibilities for creating prepositional phrases, phrases that begin with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun. In the following sections, you will find examples of prepositions, types of prepositions, a comprehensive list of prepositions, and some helpful preposition exercises. As you read the examples and study the list, remember that prepositions usually convey concepts such as comparison, direction, place, purpose, source possession, and time.
Examples of Prepositions
In the following sentences, examples of prepositions have been italicized. As you read, consider how using different prepositions or even different types of prepositions in place of the examples might change the relationship between the rest of the words in the sentence.
- I prefer to read in the library.
- He climbed up the ladder to get onto the roof.
- Please sign your name on the dotted line after you read the contract.
- Go down the stairs and through the door.
- He swam across the pool.
- Take your brother with you.
Types of Prepositions
There are three types of prepositions, including time prepositions, place prepositions, and direction prepositions.
Time prepositions are those such as before, after, during, and until; place prepositions are those indicating position, such as around, between, and against; and direction prepositions are those indicative of direction, such as across, up, and down. Each type of preposition is important.
Type of Prepositions
Prepositions of Time
Basic examples of time prepositions include: at, on, in, before and after. They are used to help indicate when something happened, happens or will happen. It can get a little confusing though, as many different prepositions can be used.
Prepositions of time examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.
- I was born on July 4th, 1982.
- I was born in 1982.
- I was born at exactly 2am.
- I was born two minutes before my twin brother.
- I was born after the Great War ended.
The above makes it seem quite difficult, with five different prepositions used to indicate when something happened. However, there is a set of guidelines that can help decide which preposition to use:
For years, months, seasons, centuries and times of day, use the preposition in:
- I first met John in 1987.
- It’s always cold in January
- Easter falls in spring each year.
- The Second World War occurred in the 20th century.
- We eat breakfast in the morning.
For days, dates and specific holiday days, use the preposition on.
- We go to school on Mondays, but not on Sunday
- Christmas is on December 25th.
- Buy me a present on my birthday.
For times, indicators of exception and festivals, use the preposition at:
- Families often argue at Christmas time.
- I work faster at night.
- Her shift finished at 7pm.
Before and after should be much easier to understand than the other examples of prepositions of time. Both are used to explain when something happened, happens or will happen, but specifically in relation to another thing.
- Before I discovered this bar, I used to go straight home after work.
- We will not leave before 3pm.
- David comes before Bryan in the line, but after Louise.
Other prepositions of time could include: During, about, around, until and throughout.
- The concert will be staged throughout the month of May.
- I learned how to ski during the holidays.
- He usually arrives around 3pm.
- It was about six in the morning when we made it to bed.
- The store is open until midnight.
Prepositions of Place
To confuse matters a bit, the most common prepositions to indicate time – on, at, in – are also the most common prepositions to indicate position. However, the rules are a little clearer as place prepositions are a more rigid concept than time prepositions.
Prepositions of place examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.
- The cat is on the table.
- The dogs are in the kennel.
- We can meet at the crossroads.
The guidelines can be broken down as follows:
On is used when referring to something with a surface:
- The sculpture hangs on the wall.
- The images are on the page.
- The specials are on the menu, which is on the table.
In is used when referring to something that is inside or within confined boundaries. This could be anything, even a country:
- Jim is in France, visiting his aunt in the hospital.
- The whiskey is in the jar in the fridge.
- The girls play in the garden.
At is used when referring to something at a specific point:
- The boys are at the entrance at the movie theater.
- He stood at the bus stop at the corner of Water and High streets.
- We will meet at the airport.
Lot’s of other prepositions of place, such as under, over, inside, outside, above and below are used in English. There is, however, a lot less confusion as they refer to rigid positions rather than abstract ones.
- The cat is under the table.
- Put the sandwich over there.
- The key is locked inside the car.
- They stepped outside the house.
- Major is ranked above corporal.
- He is waving at you from below the stairs.
Prepositions of Movement
Prepositions of movement are quite easy to understand as they are less abstract than prepositions of place and time. Essentially, they describe how something or someone moves from one place to another. The most commonly used preposition of movement is to, which usually serves to highlight that there is movement towards a specific destination.
Prepositions of movement examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.
- He has gone on vacation to France.
- She went to the bowling alley every Friday last summer.
- I will go to bed when I am tired.
- They will go to the zoo if they finish their errands.
Other more specific prepositions of movement include: through, across, off, down and into. These prepositions can sometimes get mixed up with others. While they are similar, they have individual meanings that add context to the movement.
Across refers to moving from one side to another.
- Mike travelled across America on his motorcycle.
- Rebecca and Judi are swimming across the lake.
Through refers to moving directly inside something and out the other end.
- The bullet Ben shot went through the window.
- The train passes through the tunnel.
Into refers to entering or looking inside something.
- James went into the room.
- They stare into the darkness.
Up, over, down, past and around indicate directions of movement:
- Jack went up the hill.
- Jill came tumbling down after.
- We will travel over rough terrain on our way to Grandma’s house.
- The horse runs around the track all morning.
- A car zoomed past a truck on the highway
How to Recognize a Preposition?
Recognizing prepositions can be challenging as they do not always follow a consistent pattern in terms of their position in a sentence, nor do they have a discernible structure or spelling. We do know, however, that prepositions are almost always short words, with the majority having less than six letters. One technique people use to identify a preposition is to think of a preposition as anywhere a mouse can go. Above, below, next to, between, beyond, through, by, with…It won’t cover them all, but it can be a useful question to ask when trying to identify and recognize a preposition. While there are over 100 prepositions, there are around 500,00-700,000 nouns in English! It is unlikely anyone will learn so many nouns, but recognizing and then mastering prepositions might be a worthwhile and attainable goal.
Prepositions with Nouns
There are lots of different nouns that carry specific prepositions to consolidate their meaning. These are called dependent prepositions. Again, there isn’t a set rule that says a particular type of noun will take a dependent preposition, although they normally follow the noun. Moreover, there are many possible combinations. Essentially, it’s case of familiarizing yourself with the different possibilities of nouns and dependent prepositions. Examples:
- He displayed cruelty towards his dog.
- She had knowledge of physics.
- The trouble with Jack.
- 21 is the age at which you are allowed to drink.
- Bolt made another attempt at the world record.
- The police held an inquiry into the murder.
Prepositions with Verbs
Prepositional verbs – the phrasal combinations of verbs and prepositions – are important parts of speech. The prepositions again act as links between the verb and noun or gerund, giving extra meaning to the sentence. The prepositions most commonly used with verbs are: to, for, about, of, in, at and from. The good news is that these will always come after the verb in the sentence. However, it should also be noted that the prepositional verbs can have slightly different meaning compared to the original verb. For example, to relate a story simply means to tell a story, to relate to a story means you identify with it, find some personally meaning in that story.
Verb + to:
- He admitted to the charge.
- I go to Vancouver on vacation twice a year.
- William can relate to the character in the play.
Verb + for:
- He must apologize for his actions.
- We searched for ages before we found the perfect apartment.
- I provide for my family by working two jobs.
Verb + with:
- I don’t agree with your claim.
- The lawyer said he will meet with your representatives.
- They began with a quick warm-up.
Verb + of:
- I dream of a better life.
- Have you heard of Shakespeare?
- The bread consists of dough, raisins and a little honey.
Verb + in:
- Does Rick believe in miracles?
- Fallon lives in New York.
- The bus accident resulted in my being late to work.
Verb + at
- We arrived at our destination.
- Ilene excels at singing.
- Will the baby smile at her mother?
Verb + on:
- We should really concentrate on our studies now.
- Helen insisted on Brenda’s company.
- Morris experimented on some canvas.
Verb + from:
- Since turning 80, she suffers from lapses in concentration.
- Dad retired from the navy in the 1970s.
- Billy Bob, please refrain from doing that.
Prepositions with Adjectives
Prepositions can form phrases with adjectives to give further context to the action, emotion or thing the adjective is describing. Like verbs and nouns, adjectives can be followed by: to, about, In, for, with, at and by.
- I am happily married to David.
- Ellie is crazy about this movie.
- Michelle is interested in politics.
- We are sorry for your loss.
- Jane will be delighted with her results.
- Is he still angry at the world?
- The entire room was astonished by the election results.
There can sometimes be a pattern in deciding which prepositions go with adjectives, for example, when adjectives have the same or very similar meaning to each other, they might take the same preposition:
- Frightened of, afraid of, scared of, terrified of
Indeed, when adjectives have opposite meaning they might also take the same preposition:
- Good at, great at, superb at, wonderful at
- Bad at, terrible at, woeful at, inept at
There are always many exceptions to the above, but it can help that there seems to be some
consistency when adjectives have the same meaning or opposite meaning.
Nevertheless, perhaps a more general rule is that English speakers simply need to learn which prepositions go with which adjectives, as meaning can change significantly by using a different preposition.
- I am good at sports means I have some athletic talent.
- The nurse was good to my mother means she took care of her and was nice, kind, and helpful.
- I am good with animals means I get along with them and handle them well.
- Swimming is good for your health.
- That was good of you to come means you were begin nice and good to visit.
- My little brother is good inside (his body) means even though you can’t see how he thinks and feels, he is good. Even if his behavior is bad.
- The blueberry jam will be good on toast.
The following exercises will help you gain greater understanding about how prepositions work. Choose the best answer to complete each sentence.
1. The bone was _______ the dog.
Answer: b. The bone was for the dog.
2. We are going on vacation _______ August.
Answer: c. We are going on vacation in August.
3. Please put the vase ________ the table.
Answer: b. Please put the vase on the table.
4. I received a present ________ Janet.
Answer: a. I received a present from Janet.
5. School begins ________ Monday.
Answer: b. School begins on Monday.
List of Prepositions
While there are only about 150 prepositions in the English language, these words are among the most important. Without them, the sentences we speak, read, and write would be difficult to understand. The following list of prepositions is not a complete one, however it is among the most comprehensive lists of prepositions available anywhere.