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Notes on Prepositions

Frequently Asked Questions About Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

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Notes on Prepositions

In this edition of Language Notes, we turn our attention to the preposition--one of the traditional parts of speech. Prepositions are members of a closed word class--which means that few new prepositions ever enter the language. In fact, there are only about 100 of them in English, so if you ever catch sight of a new one, please let us know.

Here are brief answers to some frequently asked questions about prepositions.

  1. What do prepositions do?
    Prepositions are words (such as in and out, above and below, to and from) that show the relationship between other words and phrases in a sentence. (You'll find a list of the common prepositions at our glossary entry for preposition.) Prepositions often show location ("under the table"), direction ("to the south"), or time ("past midnight").

  2. Are all prepositions single words?
    No. In addition to the simple (one-word) prepositions, several word groups (such as "in addition to" and "such as") perform the same grammatical function. These word groups are called complex prepositions. (You'll find a list of the most common ones at our glossary entry for complex preposition.)

  3. What is a prepositional phrase?
    Prepositions aren't in the habit of standing alone. A word group with a preposition at the head followed by an object (or complement) is called a prepositional phrase. The object of a preposition is typically a noun or pronoun: Gus put the horse before the cart.

    For practice in recognizing prepositional phrases, try this exercise: Identifying Prepositional Phrases.

  4. What do prepositional phrases do?
    Prepositional phrases add meaning to the nouns and verbs in sentences. They usually tell us where, when, or how. A prepositional phrase may do the work of an adjective and modify a noun: The student in the back row began to snore loudly. It may also function as an adverb and modify a verb: Buster fell asleep during class.

    To learn more about what prepositional phrases can do, see these two articles:

  5. Are we still expected to follow that old rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition?
    That's a "rule" (based on the etymology of "preposition" and a false analogy to Latin) that you just don't have to put up with. As long ago as 1926, Henry Fowler dismissed the rule about "preposition stranding" as "a cherished superstition" ignored by major writers from Shakespeare to Thackeray. In fact, he said, "the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its prepositions late and omitting its relatives is an important element in the flexibility of the language" (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage).

    To learn more about this false rule, see the article Is It Wrong to End a Sentence With a Preposition?

  6. Can a preposition ever function as another part of speech?
    Yes. Certain prepositions (after, as, before, since, until) serve as subordinating conjunctions when they're followed by a clause:
    You better get out of town before sundown. (preposition)

    Many people run out of ideas long before they run out of words. (conjunction)
    Some prepositions (including about, across, around, before, down, in, on, out, and up) also moonlight as adverbs (sometimes called prepositional adverbs or adverbial particles):
    Beth walked up the driveway. (preposition followed by the object)

    Beth looked up. (prepositional adverb modifying the verb looked)
    For more information, visit our glossary entry for prepositional verb.

  7. Why is it that English prepositions are often so baffling to students of English as a second language?
    We'll turn this one over to Ben Yagoda, author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It (Broadway, 2007): "Prepositions are insane! Sometimes they make no sense--it's just a case of memorizing them."

For practice in using prepositional phrases effectively, visit these articles and exercises:

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