What Is a Preposition? An Explanation With Examples
You may have guessed it already: I’m a nerd. I love nerdy knowledge things like “Jeopardy!” and researching how prepositions work and why it’s so easy to get something so basic wrong. And, as you also may have guessed, the more I learned about what is a preposition and what is not, the more fascinated I got. Let’s dive in, and I hope you geek out as much as I did over some of the littlest and most important words in the English language.
What Is a Preposition?
Prepositions, like nouns and verbs, are such fundamental components of English that most native speakers have an innate understanding of their function.
To us, the concept appears simple.
Some of the most elementary prepositions, such as on, by, and to, often indicate a physical direction, movement or time direction, for example:
- on Wednesday
- by the TV studio
- to the left
Yet, the simple concept becomes quite a bit muddier when those same prepositions describe more abstract connections, such as:
- on sale
- by car
- to our knowledge
The Academic Preposition Definition
One of the eight major parts of speech, a preposition forms a connection to, refines or enhances the relationship between grammatical elements.
One such element is the object of the preposition. It nearly always follows and is directly governed by the preposition.
The grammatical function of the object must always be that of a noun, but it may be any of the following:
- A noun or pronoun
- A noun and its modifying adjectives (noun phrase)
- A verb ending in “-ing” (gerund)
- A gerund and its objects or modifiers (gerund phrase)
- A verb in the infinitive acting as a subject
- A prepositional phrase
The preposition and its object become a single grammatical unit. This unit, or prepositional phrase, can serve as an adjectival or adverbial modifier.
Basic Types and Preposition Examples
Having all of that committed to memory will serve you well if your last eight words were, “I’ll take Post-Graduate Linguistic Theory for $2,000, Alex.” But since it’s unlikely that either of us has selected that particular category on “Jeopardy!” let’s fall back on more palatable explanations and examples.
When a sentence component needs clarification or a more elaborate meaning, we can provide more detail by referring to people, places, items or ideas.
For instance, when my mom calls to ask me for details on our “Jeopardy” appearance, where she can park, and how to get to our set, simply saying “Wednesday,” “the TV studio,” and “the left” would still leave a lot of room for speculation and confusion.
So, we build prepositional phrases by combining the prepositional object, or the descriptive noun, with a preposition appropriate to the nature of the relationship between its object and the action it details.
- We are appearing on Wednesday.
- They should let you park right by the TV studio.
- Take the first corridor to the left.
Types of Prepositions
Prepositions can be divided into five basic types:
- Simple Prepositions: Just like the three basic prepositions first mentioned (on, by, to), single-word simple prepositions are seen at the start of prepositional phrases and followed by the object either with or without an article.
- Double Prepositions: Frequently, two simple prepositions are put together to combine their meanings and form a slightly more articulate preposition that often melds aspects of time, location and place to indicate a direction or movement.
- Compound Prepositions: A compound preposition is a two- or three-word phrase that might consist entirely of prepositions (e.g., in front of, across from) or a combination of simple prepositions and other parts of speech, including articles and adjectives (e.g., in the middle of, in addition to). The entire phrase functions in the same way as a simple preposition.
- Participle Prepositions: Past and present participles are verb forms that end in -ing, -d, or -ed. They can be used as prepositions in a variety of relationships.
- Phrase Prepositions: Previously and henceforth referred to as prepositional phrases, phrase prepositions follow a formula of preposition + optional object modifier(s) + object. We will break prepositional phrases down in more detail later.
A Unique Preposition List
There are likely more than 150 words and phrases in the English language that can be used as prepositions in a variety of contexts. Many of the most common prepositions are easy to identify and will be specifically discussed later. The following preposition list includes some common and many unique words that may not be immediately recognized as prepositions.
|down||throughout||in back of||following|
|amid||opposite||up to||according to|
|up||unlike||in front of||excepting|
|minus||outside||on top of||excluded|
|aboard||inside||in case of||considering|
|till||except||by means of|
|against||in spite of|
|about||in addition to|
|but||in place of|
Why Are Prepositions So Important?
OK, so I haven’t actually been on “Jeopardy!” Still, I’ve watched it on TV a lot, and I’ve never failed to notice that there are 95 names on the credits roll, not including Alex Trebek. Those people exist behind the scenes, and I have no idea what they do. But without them, the show would come to a grinding halt.
Prepositions are so ubiquitous in speech and writing that they fade right into the context. It’s easy to take them for granted, if we notice them at all. Yet, they permeate every chapter of grammar and syntax, and without them, language would collapse into tiny, disconnected fragments.
1. Prepositions Help Connect Sentence Elements
Prepositions can form bridges that connect the elements of a sentence, most frequently in situations that connect intransitive verbs with an object.
Intransitive verbs are action verbs that can stand alone; in other words, they don’t need a direct object to complete their meaning. Here are a few examples in simple past tense:
- I searched.
- She responded.
- We agreed.
These verbs don’t always need a preposition linking them to a direct object; however, a preposition is often necessary to make the meaning clear:
- I searched for the answer to the clue I got wrong.
- Has she responded to you yet with the solution?
- We agreed with his assessment of our performance on “Jeopardy!”
These combinations are called prepositional verbs and have the defined structure of verb + preposition + direct object.
Referred to as dependent, the preposition that should be used is usually determined by the category of the relationship between the verb and the direct object; however, some prepositions are used for associations that are harder to define.
The table below outlines some of the relationships expressed by the prepositions more commonly used in prepositional verbs.
|Connection or Direction (from, to)||
|Purpose or Reason (for)||
|Reference or Indication (about, at, in)||
|Connection or Relationship (in, with)||
|Other (of, against, on)||
2. Prepositions Help Identify, Describe and Enhance Things and Ideas
Articulate communication often requires us to label or clarify ideas by indicating a connection or relationship to something else.
In particular, abstract nouns usually require a preposition to complete the expression:
- I took pleasure in the rare chance to see the sunrise.
- We don’t need a reason for being kind.
- All I could hear was the sound of my mom cheering for us.
We can use these pairings to identify, describe or enhance concepts, but there isn’t a structure that tells us which prepositions go with which nouns. Here are some everyday examples of noun + preposition combinations:
3. Prepositions Help Provide Embellishment and Variety
Prepositions are the superglue that allows us to assemble words into an infinite variety of poetic, ironic and absurdly funny expressions.
For example, when we want to round out or embellish an adjective that represents a concept, such as an emotion, opinion or state of being, prepositions join the elements:
- I am really nervous about the contest.
- How lovely of you to donate your prize money!
- The main floor is filled with audience members.
As with noun and verb pairs, the preposition, known as an adjective complement, will always directly follow the adjective.
Adjective + preposition combinations also have no defined method for pairing, although synonyms and antonyms often (but don’t always) share prepositions.
It’s routine to hear “literally” describe something that isn’t literal at all. But, really, colloquial English is so idiomatic that it can be hard to remember what the literal definition was.
Idioms are words or phrases that carry a connotation that can’t be defined by the actual meaning of the words. The presence of a preposition in a commonly recognized phrase is usually a pretty good clue that you’re looking at one:
- The invitation to “Jeopardy!” came out of the blue.
- By the way, my mom will be in the audience.
- Don’t try to play down your victory.
Since prepositional idioms are sayings that simply evolved over time, there really aren’t any rules besides their role as verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.
Prepositional idioms that behave like standard verbs usually consist of a preposition that follows a verb and are called phrasal verbs.
|Idioms||Definitions||Prepositional Idiom Examples|
|die down||to quieten||
|buzz off||to leave, usually in annoyance||
|grow on||to slowly become tolerated||
|fed up||to become bored or exasperated||
|come up with||to invent or construct||
Adjectival and adverbial idioms generally follow a preposition + noun format.
|Idioms||Definitions||Prepositional Idiom Examples|
|at full tilt||as fast as possible||
|by a mile||with a significant gap||
|in spades||a great amount or extent||
|for a lark||for jest or impulse||
|from the top||at the beginning||
|out of gas||drained or fatigued||
These few examples of idioms will help you get the idea, but they don’t even crack the surface: One collection contains over 60,000 idioms and phrases used in the English language.
Elementary Grammar for $100: “What Is a Preposition?”
Since I’ve already used so many words to explain words, I’ll sum up quickly. Prepositions are awesome because they are so critical to making our thoughts coherent, yet so elementary that we hardly notice that we are using them at all.
Did you get as excited over discussing “What is a preposition?” as I did? Let me know your thoughts below!
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