ESL - Preposition Phrases - 8 Handy Tips

Just a few notes about preposition phrases, which can create confusion among students of ESL:

The way I like to approach prepositions is as follows:

1. Remember the basic structure of a preposition phrase.

preposition + noun object

in the house
over my head
with a pencil
for ten years
around six inches

Every preposition MUST have a noun object.

2. Remember that a preposition phrase might contain adjective modifiers:

in the old, drafty house
under the rusted roof
before the next movie
despite the good news
with a sly wink

3. Remember that if there are adjective modifiers, they can also be modified by adverbs

in a dangerously crowded room
near the colorfully painted barn
beside a completely empty box
with a carefully drawn signature
by a surprisingly funny joke

4. Remember that if there IS a subject and verb after a preposition, it ISN'T a preposition-- it is a dependent clause marker! Different grammar!

Preposition phrases:

after lunch
before the dawn

NOT preposition phrases!! Dependent clauses:

after we eat lunch
before the dawn breaks

5. (For Advanced Students) Remember that a noun clause may be the object of a preposition.

in what is now called Los Angeles
by what he said
with whomever he wishes
about when the war ended
through which we learn.

All of the above ARE preposition phrases

6. Remember the basic functions of prepositions. They are:


at nine o'clock
after midnight
in 1976
until the deadline
during the summer


under the table
on your head
by the bed
over the clouds
near the bank

Method or "way"

by check
by credit card
by email
by phone
by car
by spaceship
with a hammer
with a smile
with a fork
with a good education
with enough experience

7. Preposition phrases are also used to show who or what did the action when passive voice is used:

by my father
by the government
by a machine

8. Remember that in addition to the usages in tips #6 and #7, there are other times you will need a preposition phrase. Remember that verbs and adjectives have their own prepositions that go together with them. We call these "preposition combinations" and you will need to memorize a list of them:


afraid + of
accustomed + to
happy + about
sorry + for
angry + at
interested + in


worry + about
listen + to
consist + of
look + at -or- Look + for
agree + with

Remember that these combinations are the only prepositions you may use, except if you are describing time, location, method, or doer of an action with passive voice. So studying the most common ones will enable you to use prepositions more naturally.

That's about it! All of what you've learned at ESL school about prepositions can be boiled down to these eight items. Refer to your textbooks to refresh your memory. Then work on remembering all eight tips. Your preposition usage will improve quickly, I guarantee it.

Good luck!



John K.

Efficient, Experienced SAT, TOEFL, ACT, GMAT, GRE Online Specialist

2250+ hours
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