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Prepositions

Written by tutor Bethany K.

Prepositions generally show the relationship between nouns.

Think about the relationship between the nouns in this sentence:
The guitar is behind the door.

One noun (the guitar) is sitting BEHIND the other (the door). So, behind is a preposition.

Can you spot the prepositions in these sentences? Consider each noun’s relationship with the chair:

The book is on the chair. (on)
The cat is under the chair. (under)
The chair is beside the window. (beside)

An easy way to remember how prepositions behave is this handy phrase:

Prepositions show position!

Sometimes, prepositions show a position in physical space:

I parked the car NEAR the house.

But sometimes prepositions show a relationship that is not physical at all.

Susan is AGAINST the new proposal.

Prepositions can sometimes show relationships between words that are not nouns.

Robert fell asleep DURING the movie. (Asleep is an adverb here.)
The boxes were so close together that Jill could not walk BETWEEN them. (Walk is a verb; them is a pronoun.)

In formal English, prepositions always appear as part of a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition and continues until the object of the preposition (which is usually a noun or pronoun).

George bought cupcakes that were covered in shiny, purple sprinkles.

The preposition is IN.

The object of the prepositional phrase is SPRINKLES.

The complete prepositional phrase is “in shiny, purple sprinkles.”

NOTE: The object of the prepositional phrase is not usually the same word as the object of the sentence. In the sentence above, the direct object of the sentence is CUPCAKES.

Here are the most common prepositions:

A: aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, amid, among, around, at

B: before, behind, below, beneath, beside, besides, between, beyond, but, by

C: concerning

D: down, during

E: except

F: for, from

I: in, inside, into

L: like

N: near

O: of, off, on, onto, outside, over

P: past

S: since

T: through, to, toward

U: under, underneath, until, up, upon

W: with, within, without

Some of these words do double duty. A word might be a preposition in one situation, but it might serve another purpose in a different sentence.

I like ice cream. (Like is a verb here.)
Joe looks like his brother. (Like is a preposition when it means “similar to.”)

Sometimes prepositions appear in idioms, or unique language that doesn’t translate easily.

Falling IN a puddle and falling IN love are very different experiences.
If your mom asks you to “pick your clothes” she wants you to make some choices. However, if your mom asks you to “pick UP your clothes” she wants you to do some cleaning. Notice that UP is actually changing the meaning of the verb.
Throwing a ball TO someone is different from throwing a ball AT someone.

Since many prepositions are short and are spoken quickly, it’s easy to choose the incorrect one.

My cousin compared my swollen leg WITH a tree trunk. In this usage, WITH is common, but TO would be a better, more accurate, choice.

Prepositional phrases can be used to increase sentence variety in your writing. Stack a few together as an introductory element–before the subject of the sentence–and follow it with a comma.

ON a sailboat IN the middle OF the ocean, I saw a whale for the first time.
INSIDE the city park BY the hospital, you’ll find a huge statue of a cow.

Some grammar books will tell you not to put prepositions at the end of a sentence. If you can avoid it, please do, but know that many English speakers ignore this old-fashioned rule.

“Where are you AT?” could be said “Where are you?” without changing the meaning, so remove that unnecessary preposition.
“Who did you see the movie WITH?” makes no sense if the preposition at the end is dropped. In this instance, what is officially correct is awkwardly formal: “WITH whom did you see the movie?” This construction is acceptable in a college essay but noticeably out of place in casual conversation.

Prepositions Quiz

Find two prepositions in each of the following sentences.

Eric fell off his bike into the lake.

A. off, into
B. fell, into
C. off, lake
The correct answer here would be A.

"Off" shows the relationship between Eric and his bike, and "into" shows the relationship between Eric and the lake.

I like tacos with lots of tomatoes.

A. like, of
B. with, of
C. with, like
The correct answer here would be B.

"With" shows the relationship between tacos and lots. "Of" shows the relationship between lots and tomatoes.

Jen wants to buy green shoes for the dance in February.

A. for, in
B. for, to
C. to, in
The correct answer here would be A.

"For" shows the relationship between shoes and dance. "In" shows the relationship between dance and February. "To" is not a preposition here, because it is part of the infinitive phrase "to buy."

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