Grammar Guide: Prepositions

What are Prepositions?prepositions

A preposition is a word that shows the relationship between the noun following the preposition and other words in the sentence. These relationships include: place or position, direction, time, manner, and agent. Prepositions may be one word or a prepositional phrase (such as “in front of”). They’re always followed by a noun which is the “object” of the preposition. A preposition and its object make up a prepositional phrase which typically functions as an adjective or adverb.

 

I’m still not sure if I know what they are. Can you give me some examples?

The most common prepositions are “in,” “on,” and “at.” These are the most common because they can be used for time, place, or manner. There are several others, such as “under,” “into,” “during,” “with,” etc. I’ll give more examples as I talk about the various kinds of prepositions.

 

Types of Prepositions

Prepositions of Place

Prepositions of place show where an object is located in relation to something else. Please bear with my Microsoft Paint skills—I can write, but I most certainly cannot draw!

 

placeprep

Using this image, we can see how certain prepositions of place work. Using the circle as a reference point, we can see:

  • The black text is in/inside the circle. (“In” means “surrounded by” the reference point)
  • The dark blue line is leaning against the circle. (“Against” means “touching” the reference point for an extended length.)
  • The green point is at the edge of the circle. (“At” means “touching” the reference point at a particular spot.)
  • The dark red line is on the circle. (“On” means “placement on the surface,” generally the top, of the reference point.)
  • The orange line is over the circle. (“Over” means “higher than” the point of reference.)
  • The light blue text is below/under the circle. (“Below” means “under” the reference point.)

Prepositions of Direction

Prepositions of Direction illustrate paths of travel or motion.
directionprep

Using the black square as the reference point, we can see

  • The green line goes into the square. (“Into” means something starts on the outside of, then “enters” the reference point.)
  • The yellow line goes through the square. (“Through” means something starts outside the reference point, enters it, and exits it from another side.)
  • The blue line goes across the square. (“Across” means something starts at the reference point, and ends at the opposite side of it.)
  • The red circle goes around the square. (“Around” means something starts outside the reference point, and travels near the reference point without entering it.)

Prepositions of Time

Prepositions of time help us differentiate if something is at a point in time or for a length of time. (P.S. There is no fun image for this!)

  • Points in time:
  • In: used for months, years, seasons, or parts of a day. (In 2009, In the summer, In the morning)
  • At: used for a more specific point in time. (At 4:00, At midnight)
  • On: used for specific dates and days of the week. (On Monday, On June 22, 2009)
  • Extended periods of time:
  • For: used for countable units of time or expressions. (For nine months, For a while, For a few hours, For six days)
  • During: used for a block of time and with the definite article (the) or demonstrative pronouns (these, that, those, this). (During this time, During the race)
  • Since: used to refer to a point in the past, which extends to another point in time. (Since I’ve been able to read, I have always loved fantasy.)

Prepositions of Manner

Prepositions of manner tell how something is done.

  • With: used for accompaniment. (I went with my husband)
  • For: used for “purpose” or reasoning. (I made a blog for writing)
  • Of: used for association or measure (see “by”). (I want a piece of the pie)
  • By: used to show measurement. (I get paid by the hour)
  • Like: used to show similarity. (She looks like Britney Spears)
  • As: used to show capacity. (I work as a tutor)

So wait, one word can be more than one type of preposition?

Yes, some prepositional words function as various things. You can see from the material above that “in,” “at,” and “on” function as a few things. Because of this, there are some commonly misued prepositions, mostly dealing with those three.

Commonly Misued Prepositions

  • In/On (location): “In” means beneath the surface of an object, “On” means touching the surface. (The pen was in the desk drawer. The pen was on the desk.)
  • In/At (location): “At” is a specific location, “in” is within something like a building, city, or country. (She works in the Writing Center. I’ll meet you at the front gate)
  • On/At (addresses): “On” is used with street names, “At” is for specific addresses. (I live on 112th st. She lives at 10723 34th St.)
  • Among/Between (location): “Among” is used when there are MORE than two people/things. “Between” is used when there are two. (The candy bar was split between the two of them. The candy bar was split among the three of them.)

So Kelly, what about prepositional phrases?

I know I mentioned prepositional phrases earlier, and they are an important part of knowing prepositions. However, the number of prepositional phrases out there is very, VERY large, and I simply do not have enough room to put them all. Once you get the hang of these, prepositional phrases should start becoming a little clearer and easier to understand.

Final Thoughts:

Prepositions can be difficult to learn. There are lots of words and word combinations that are prepositions or prepositional phrases. Try not to get discouraged and keep at it! Good luck! 😀

Posted in Grammar Guides.

12 Comments

  1. What about ending a sentence with one? Grammar Girl said the rule is archaic (maybe she did, or else I’m just making that up for my own convenience), but I keep hearing a little voice chiding me on it from the back of my head. Is it really bad? If so, why?

  2. That’s a great point Jennifer, I’m glad you brought it up.

    Notice in my definition, I say, “Prepositions are words that show the relationship between the noun which follows it and other words in the sentence.”

    Essentially, if you end a sentence with a preposition there is no noun following it to have a “relationship with.” If I say, “It’s over,” you have to wonder–“It is over…what?” You don’t have a noun to illustrate the preposition completely.

    “Dangling prepositions” are commonly used in conversational slang. You may hear someone say, “What are you doing that for?” when really, it should be “Why are you doing that?” While it’s not going to kill you if you say it to your friends, it’s bad to get into such a habit and should be avoided.

    Here’s a totally random image. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if you’ll know what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

    Ok, have you ever seen a Chinese finger trap? They’re little woven tubes that you can stick your fingers into. If you stick only one finger in, the trap doesn’t work. View the trap like a preposition–if you only have words coming from one end of the preposition, it doesn’t work. However, stick a finger in the other end and the finger trap works. One finger is the preceding material, the trap is the preposition, and the noun/proceeding material is your second finger. It only works if everything is there.

    I hope you found this useful, and thanks for the great question!

  3. You forgot to mention the difference between “preposition” and “proposition”. The difference is: people use prepositions, while propositions use people.

  4. Thanks for the explanation, but I think I still need a little more clarification. Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition when it’s a part of an idiom? For example, “We worked out,” “It got him worked up,” “I’m moving on,” etc.?

  5. Again, it depends on what you’re doing. For academic purposes, I try to avoid conversational idioms. When you’re talking to someone or writing creatively, it’s more acceptable to bend rules and thus end a sentence with a preposition.

    Also, you can try to structure your sentences in a way that the preposition isn’t at the end of the sentence. For example, you can say something like “We worked out at the gym.” This way, you don’t have to worry if you’re doing something right or wrong. 😉

  6. wow, im happened to click in this web, lol
    im in grade ten now -.- academic.
    and our teacher is teaching us preposition, verb, noun, pronoun…….
    I learned a lot from your explanation. THANX

  7. Outstanding. As a new tesol teacher, searching for clear materials and explanations I cannot thank you enough. I have found nothing to compare with this entry of yours. I am endebted.
    Trace.

  8. Hi, I am making a website for spanish speakers who want to learn english from zero.
    Do you mind if I use one of your drawings???

  9. Dear Kelly,

    I have just looked at your website for the first time. There appears to be a grammatical error in your very first sentence (defining prepositions)….!

    Regards,
    John

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