What Are Prepositions?

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Prepositions

A preposition is a word that usually tells where or when something is in relation to something else.

Examples of Prepositions that Tell Us Where

Here are some examples of prepositions that tell us where something is in relation to something else (prepositions highlighted):
  • the boy behind the bush
  • (Here, the preposition "behind" tells us where "the boy" is in relation to "the bush.")
  • a mouse under the stairs
  • (In this example, the preposition "under" tells us where "a mouse" is in relation to "the stairs.")

Examples of Prepositions that Tell Us When

Here are some examples of prepositions that tell us when something is in relation to something else (prepositions highlighted):
  • the calm before the storm
  • (Here, the preposition "before" tells us when "the calm" is in relation to "the storm.")
  • one second after the bang
  • (In this example, the preposition "after" tells us when "one second" is in relation to "the bang.")
About the Word "Preposition"


As we've seen, prepositions can tell us where or when something is. However, prepositions are far more versatile than that. The word "preposition" means "positioned before." A preposition sits before a word (either a noun or a pronoun) to show that word's relationship to another nearby word. Look at these examples:

  • a bone for the dog
  • (Here, the preposition "for" sits before the noun "the dog" to show the relationship between "the dog" and "a bone." This example is not about where or when.)
  • everyone except the teacher
  • (In this example, the preposition "except" sits before the noun "the teacher" to show the relationship between "the teacher" and "everyone." So, this example is not about where or when either.)
What are prepositions?

List of Common Prepositions

Here is a list of common prepositions:

above, about, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, since, to, toward, through, under, until, up, upon, with, within

Some Easy Examples of Prepositions

In the examples below, each preposition (highlighted) sits before the noun "the wizard" to show us the relationship between "the wizard" and "the book."
  • The book about the wizard
  • The book by the wizard
  • The book near the wizard
  • The book behind the wizard
  • The book under the wizard
Here are some more examples:
  • It is a container for butter.
  • (The preposition "for" shows the relationship between "butter" and "a container.")
  • The eagle soared above the clouds.
  • (The preposition "above" shows the relationship between "the clouds" and "the eagle.")
  • He is the President of the United States.
  • (The preposition "of" shows the relationship between "the United States" and "the President.")

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing this lesson on prepositions.

Click on Two Prepositions

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The Role of a Preposition

Prepositions show how two words are linked. Lots of prepositions (e.g., "on," "in," "near," "behind," "under," "inside") tell us where things are relative to each other. For example:
  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • The rat ran under the shed.
  • The Sun dropped below the horizon.
Often, prepositions (e.g., "during," "after," "before," "in," "on," "at") tell us when things are. For example:
  • Eat your popcorn during the show.
  • The swans will leave in August.
  • I will clean the windows on Sunday.
  • She said the answer before you.
Expressing where and when are two key roles for prepositions, but they have other roles too. For example, they might show possession or purpose.
  • These are the wishes of the people.
  • (Here, the preposition "of" shows possession.)
  • It is a device for opening jars.
  • (Here, the preposition "for" shows purpose.)
A Good Way to Think about Prepositions


When you're first learning about prepositions, it might be useful to think about prepositions as anywhere a mouse could go.

prepositions

This works because lots of prepositions show the relationship between two words by expressing their locations relative to each other.

Real-Life Examples of Prepositions

Here are some real-life sentences featuring prepositions.
  • I cook with wine. Sometimes, I even add it to food. (Actor W C Fields)
  • ("With" shows the relationship between "wine" and "cook." "To" shows the relationship between "food" and "add it.")
  • Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. (Actor Jim Carrey)
  • ("Behind" shows the relationship between "every great man" and "a woman." The term "every great man" is a noun phrase. Note that a preposition can sit before a noun, a noun phrase, a noun clause, or a pronoun.)
  • The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits. (Physicist Albert Einstein)
  • ("Between" shows the relationship between "stupidity" and "genius.")
  • If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me. (Writer Alice Roosevelt Longworth)
  • ("About" shows the relationship between "anybody" and "to say." "Next to" shows the relationship between "me" and "sit." Note that a preposition can be more than one word. Other common multi-word prepositions are "close to," "ahead of," "in front of," and "according to.")

More about Prepositions

Object of a Preposition

The word (or phrase) that follows a preposition is called the object of a preposition. If there is a preposition, there will always be an object of the preposition. A preposition cannot exist by itself.

object of a preposition

Read more about the object of a preposition.

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition and the object of the preposition (including any modifiers). Prepositional phrases are very common. They function as either adjectives or adverbs. For example (prepositional phrases highlighted):
  • It is a message from Mark.
  • (Here, the prepositional phrase "from Mark" is functioning like an adjective because it is describing "message.")
  • Mark is trapped on the island.
  • (Here, the prepositional phrase "on the island" is functioning like an adverb because it is modifying the verb "is trapped.")
Show me an infographic


Read more about prepositional phrases.

Why Should I Care about Prepositions?

There are four common issues involving prepositions:

(Issue 1) Try to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition.

What percentage of people think you can't end a sentence with a preposition?

Have a look at our poll. It tells us the percentage of people who still think you can't end a sentence with a preposition.
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Lots of people think it is incorrect to end a sentence in a preposition because, as we've just covered, a preposition is supposed to sit before a noun. (It is, after all, how preposition gets its name.) Therefore, if the preposition is the last word in the sentence, it can't sit before anything. So, there is some logic to this ruling, which many people follow. However, this issue is far more complicated than many realize, and the best way to summarize it is by saying that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it's perfectly acceptable - from a grammatical perspective - to end a sentence in a "preposition." (I'll explain the quotation marks later.)

Here's the rub. Even though you'd likely be correct by ending your sentence with a "preposition," you should be mindful that a fair few of your readers will think it's a grammar mistake or sloppy writing. As we still haven't trained ourselves to ignore this so-called ruling, we can't ignore it. I like to think of "avoiding a preposition at the end of a sentence" as a game rather than a ruling. Let's look at an example:
  • It is a scenario I have not thought of.
  • (This is natural sounding, but it ends in a preposition.)
Let's play the game. Let's restructure our sentence:
  • It is a scenario of which I have not thought.
  • (This sounds awful. It's unnatural and contrived. On the plus side, our preposition now sits before the pronoun "which," and that fits the rule for siting a preposition.)
But, it sounds terrible, so let's keep playing. Let's reword our sentence:
  • It is a scenario I have not considered.
  • (Yes! This sounds natural, and it does not end in a preposition. This keeps everyone happy...except those people who think we shouldn't pander to those who still think you can't end a sentence in a preposition.)
So, for now, I'm advising you become a panderer to this non-ruling. I must say this though. If restructuring your sentence makes it sound contrived and you can't reword it, then just let the preposition at the end ride. If you're questioned on it, fight like a dog because you'll be in the right.

So, why was "preposition" in quotation marks earlier in this section? Well, quite often, your sentence will end in something that looks like a preposition but isn't. Be mindful that it could be part of a phrasal verb, i.e., a verb made up of a verb and another word (either a preposition or a particle), e.g., "fill in," "stick to," "catch up," "catch out." Quite often, these words must be next to each other, and that's often a factor in your sentence structure.
A Key Point

The best way to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence is to choose a non-phrasal verb with the same meaning. This usually leads to a shorter, better-flowing sentence. That's the best reason to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence.
  • It is a scenario we should not put up with.
  • (This is sloppy, but it's not technically wrong.)
  • It is a scenario we should not tolerate.
  • (This is much sharper.)

(Issue 2) Don't use the wrong case after a preposition.

The word or words that follow a preposition are called the object of a preposition. The object of a preposition is always in the objective case. This just means that words like "I," "she," "we," and "they" change to "me," "her," "us," and "them" when they follow a preposition (e.g., "about me," "with her," "for us," "against them"). This is a pretty simple concept for a native English speaker, but it still catches some people out.
  • It is a present from my wife and I.
  • (This is wrong because "I" cannot be the object of the preposition "from.")
  • It is a present from me and my wife.
  • Between you and I
  • (This is wrong because "I" cannot be the object of the preposition "between.")
  • Between you and me
Ironically, many people use terms like "from my wife and I" and "between you and I" with a highbrow tone, believing them to be grammatically pure. They're not grammatically pure. They're wrong.

Another one that catches people out is using "who" after a preposition. "Who" becomes "whom" in the objective case. In other words, "who" is to "whom" as "he" is to "him" or "they" is to "them." The bottom line is "who" cannot be the object of a preposition. You need "whom.")
  • You went with who?
  • You went with whom?
  • (Write "whom" after a preposition.)

(Issue 3) Don't confuse prepositions with other words.

Writers sometimes confuse prepositions with other words. Here are the most common issues ordered by how frequently they are seen:
  • Writing the adverb "too" (which means overly or as well) instead of the preposition "to" (which has several meanings including towards and for).
Read more about "too" and "to.
  • Writing the preposition "of" instead of "have" when writing "could've," "should've," or "would've" in full.
Read more about "could've," "would've," and "should've.
  • Writing the noun "dependant" (a person, usually a child or spouse) in the multi-word preposition "dependent on" (which means reliant on).
Read more about dependent and dependant.
  • Writing the preposition "past" (beyond) instead of "passed" (past tense of to pass).
Read more about "past" and "passed.
  • Writing the preposition "between" (usually used with two distinct points) instead of the preposition "among" (in the middle of a group).
Read more about "between" and "among.

(Issue 4) Keep your writing succinct.

Some phrasal verbs (i.e., multi-word verbs) have prepositions that do not add anything. When you encounter one of these, delete the prepositions to improve succinctness.
  • I cannot face up to the consequences.
  • (This is correct, but it's not succinct.)
  • I cannot face the consequences.
  • (This is sharper. The prepositions were a waste of ink.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Prepositions test (find the preposition in the text) Prepositions (drag-and-drop test) Prepositions game (bubble-pop game) Prepositions game (whack-a-word) Prepositions game (fish game) Ending a sentence in a preposition The object of a preposition Verbs with prepositions - succinct writing More than I or more than me?