Prepositions are short, simple, and remarkably useful words. We use prepositions to create modifying phrases called prepositional phrases.

With prepositions we can connect a noun phrase—called the object of the preposition—to another word in a sentence. The preposition and its object together make the prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase usually modifies a noun or verb, but it can also modify an adjective or adverb.

Here are some examples of prepositional phrases. The prepo- sitions are underlined, and the remaining words are the objects of the prepositions (with modifiers, in some cases):


among the debris on the roof

in the room to our house

for your birthday

beside our house from the roof

by the room after dinner

with her


As you see, prepositions usually precede their objects—that is, they are pre-positioned before the objects.

In English, there are hundreds of thousands of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, but there are relatively few prepositions—



perhaps one hundred or so. The list below contains most of the frequently used prepositions.

If you read over the following list (about seventy) now and then, and refer to it when you need to, it will be easier for you to recognize prepositional phrases. And dictionaries can always help you recognize them:












but (meaning except)

























































We’ll look at more prepositions shortly.

The most important characteristic of a preposition is that it’s usually followed by its object. You have to be careful about classifying a word as a preposition, because many of them act as other kinds of words—especially as adverbs. Some can also be



special kinds of words that we’ll study later, such as participles or as particles in phrasal verbs. A dictionary can help you make the distinction.



Prepositional phrases serve a remarkable variety of purposes. Here are a few of their common uses, with prepositional phrases in the right-hand columns in the examples below.

Prepositional phrases often indicate relative spatial positions, as in these examples modifying nouns (i.e., they’re all adjectival phrases):



the alley the shingles the shingle the plate the shoe the picture

behind [or beside] our house, on our block on top of our house

on the roof

in the cupboard, by itself

under [or by] the sofa, without the other above the sofa, of Dorian Gray



Prepositional phrases often indicate relative direction of movement, as in these adverbial examples:



driving going going going leaving throwing

by your house, down the street to your house, up the street into [or in] your house

through [or around] your house from your house

at your house



(Well, that relationship went downhill in a hurry.)

Prepositional phrases can also indicate time relationships, as in these adverbial examples:




We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet

We’ll meet

after the film. at 8 pm.

during the meeting. before dinner.

for twenty minutes.

until 8 pm.


And some prepositional phrases are just creepy:



The old house The motel

The woman

at the top of the hill

in the middle of nowhere in the shower



As we’ve just seen, prepositional phrases are used as adjectives or adverbs—that is, they’re used adjectivally or adverbially. Adjec- tival prepositional phrases usually follow the nouns they modify. The following sentences contain adjectival prepositional phrases, and we’ve underlined the entire phrase:


The dog in the yard barked loudly. I read the first of three volumes.

This is my letter to the principal.


In each of the sentences above, the prepositional phrase modifies the noun it follows.

In the sentences below, the adverbial prepositional phrases are underlined:


I arrived at noon.

I drove into the garage. I walked for exercise.

I walked at a fast pace.



As adverbs, these prepositional phrases tell us when, where, why, or how the action of the verb was performed.

We learned earlier that adverbs modifying verbs are often movable. In the sentences below, we see that some of the underlined adverbial prepositional phrases are also movable. Typically, the moveable phrases indicate time, place, or manner:


The dog barked loudly in the yard. In the yard, the dog barked loudly.


Little Ruthie practiced the violin for two hours. For two hours, little Ruthie practiced the violin.


Mr. Lochenhocher would rather listen to the dog. I’ve heard Ruthie play, and I’m with Lochenhocher.

We can’t move the adverbial prepositional phrases in the last two sentences.

Sometimes the guidelines for distinguishing adverbial and adjectival phrases don’t work as well as we’d like. Here’s another example:


We drove the car into the garage.


Into the garage follows car, but the phrase obviously doesn’t modify car. Here the prepositional phrase is adverbial; it answers the question, “Where did you drive the car?” But this adverbial phrase is not moveable. We probably wouldn’t write


Into the garage, we drove the car.


When we’re trying to identify the function of the prepositional phrase, the most important point to consider is the meaning of



the phrase. Does it reasonably apply to a noun or an action? What does it describe?

In other words, sometimes prepositional phrases—and other structures—are grammatically ambiguous. Consider this:


Steve read the book in the living room.


Does in the living room describe the book Steve read? That is, he read the book that was in the living room. In that case, the phrase is adjectival.

But it might be adverbial: Steve was in the living room when he read the book. The sentence can plausibly be read either way, which is not at all unusual.

To clarify, we could rewrite it this way:

In the living room, Steve read the book. Now the phrase is unmistakably adverbial.

There’s more. Adverbial prepositional phrases can also modify adjectives and adverbs. Below, they modify the adjectives sure and careless:


He was too sure of himself.


He was careless with the dynamite.


(By the way, both of the adjectives above are called predicate adjectives, which we’ll learn about later.)

Next, these prepositional phrases modify the adverb far: Musial hit the ball far into left field.

We steered the boat far from the dock.



In the four examples above, the prepositional phrases follow the words they modify. These adverbial uses are less common than those modifying verbs, and they are not moveable.



Along with those we’ve seen so far, there are more one-word prepositions that are unusual, because they look like verbs. Specifically, they’re the –ing form of verbs. Here’s a list of common ones, with objects:


barring bad weatherincluding her

concerning the budgetpending your letter considering the circumstancesrespecting your question counting youregarding that issue

excepting mesaving one last preposition

following the instructionstouching the matter


Some of these look like participles (which are –ing verbs used adjectivally, a category we examine in Chapter 17). They may have begun life that way. (Words sometimes go downhill like that.) Even the first list of prepositions contained one –ing word: during, with is a form of a verb we no longer use: dure, meaning


Other prepositions that look a bit like participles include given

and notwithstanding:


Given the weather, we should cancel the trip. Notwithstanding the weather, we’ll go anyway.


Some authorities don’t accept all of the words above as prepositions.




This kind of preposition consists of a two-word phrase used as if it were one word. In the following examples, these phrasal prepositions are underlined:


according to the Bibleinstead of Stephanie

as for Steveout of flour

because of the timeowing to the weather depending on the weatherup to you

except for Patrick


But grammatical categories can be porous, and sometimes au- thorities disagree about a word or phrase. Some grammar books and dictionaries identify the following phrases (or others like them) as prepositions:


ahead of youcontrary to opinion

alongside of youdue to him

apart from younext to you

away from youtogether with you close to you


But there’s another way to analyze phrases like these. The first word could be read as an adjective or adverb depending on context, followed by a one-word preposition and its object (of you, from you, and the others).

For example, the prepositional phrases in the following sen- tences are adverbial, modifying the adjectives and adverbs they follow:


We are ahead of them. We are next to them.

Events were contrary to expectations. We pulled alongside of the truck.




Some authorities classify the following three-word phrases (and a few others) as prepositions:


by means of

in back of

in case of

in charge of

in front of

in search of


But in their usual contexts, these are better analyzed as a series of

two prepositional phrases, as in these examples:


By meansof law, the project will be stopped.

He is in chargeof the unit.

She is in frontof the audience.

Call me in caseof an emergency.


So we’ll claim that prepositions are never more than two words long. But don’t be surprised if you encounter grammar books and dictionaries that recognize some three-word English phrases as “phrasal prepositions” or “compound prepositions.”




One remaining sub-class of prepositions are words borrowed from Latin and French. You’ll encounter them seldom, but most have their uses in certain contexts.


à la [meaning “in the manner of”]

He attempted to write à la H. P. Lovecraft.


bar [meaning “except for”] She is the best, bar none.


circa [meaning “in approximately”] Chaucer was born circa 1340.



cum [meaning “together with”]

He has built an office cum workshop.


per [meaning “for every”]

This car gets twenty-one miles per gallon.


re [meaning “about”]

We are writing re your complaint.


versus [meaning “against”; abbreviated v.]

We studied the famous case of Griswold v. Connecticut.


via [meaning “by way of”]

We traveled via the Interminable Turnpike.


vis-à-vis [meaning “compared with”]

We will consider our expenses vis-à-vis our income.


In general, avoid these prepositions unless the context justifies them. Using them carelessly makes you seem pretentious, and there are perfectly good English words and phrases that you can use instead.



Should you end a sentence with a preposition?

One of the best-known rules of prescriptive grammar insists that we must never end sentences with prepositions. But, in fact, good professional writers do it all the time.

You should be aware, however, that in formal contexts, some writers and editors regard sentences like the following as too informal or just plain wrong:



He is the person who I want you to give this to.


This sentence troubles some readers for one or two reasons. First, the preposition to is no longer before its object, who. In fact, the preposition and its object are widely separated. Second, by the strictest rules of grammar, who should be whom.

Some editors and writers would prefer this version of the sentence:


He is the person to whom I want you to give this.


Still other editors might find this corrected version excessively formal for some purposes and readers because of whom and the placement of the prepositional phrase.

If necessary, we can usually rewrite an entire sentence to elim- inate problems like these, as the next two possible revisions show:


Give this to him. He should get this.


Unnecessary prepositions.

It’s always a mistake to add an unnecessary preposition to a sentence. Here are some examples:


She got off of the train this morning. Where did you find her at?

She was waiting beside of the station.


These are not colossal errors, but deleting unnecessary words is always a good thing to do.











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Interactive Grammar Book by Sushumna Rao Tadinada; Professor Moustapha Diack; and Diola Bagayoko, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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