A preposition describes a relationship between other words in a sentence. In itself, a word like in or after is rather meaningless and hard to define. For instance, when you do try to define a preposition like in or between or on, you invariably use your hands to show how something is situated in relationship to something else. Prepositions are nearly always combined with other words in structures called prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases can be made up of a million different words, but they tend to be built the same: a preposition followed by a determiner and an adjective or two, followed by a pronoun or noun (called the object of the preposition). This whole phrase, in turn, takes on a modifying role, acting as an adjective or an adverb, locating something in time and space, modifying a noun, or telling when or where or under what conditions something happened.
Consider the professor’s desk and all the prepositional phrases we can use while talking about it:
You can sit before the desk (or in front of the desk). The professor can sit on the desk (when he’s being informal) or behind the desk, and then his feet are under the desk or beneath the desk. He can stand beside the desk (meaning next to the desk), before the desk, between the desk and you, or even on the desk (if he’s really strange). If he’s clumsy, he can bump into the desk or try to walk through the desk (and stuff would fall off the desk). Passing his hands over the desk or resting his elbows upon the desk, he often looks across the desk and speaks of the desk or concerning the desk as if there were nothing else like the desk. Because he thinks of nothing except the desk, sometimes you wonder about the desk, what’s in the desk, what he paid for the desk, and if he could live without the desk. You can walk toward the desk, to the desk, around the desk, by the desk, and even past the desk while he sits at the desk or leans against the desk.
All of this happens, of course, in time: during the class, before the class, until the class, throughout the class, after the class, etc.
Those words in italic font are all prepositions. Some prepositions do other things besides locate in space or time — “My brother is like my father.” “Everyone in the class except me got the answer.” — but nearly all of them modify in one way or another.
Below, you will find some common prepositions:
- according to
- because of
- by way of
- in addition to
- in front of
- in place of
- in regard to
- in spite of
- instead of
- on account of
- out of
Is it any wonder that prepositions create such troubles for students for whom English is a second language? We say we are at the hospital to visit a friend who is in the hospital. We lie in bed but on the couch. We watch a film at the theatre but on television. For native speakers, these little words present little difficulty, but try to learn another language, and you will quickly discover that prepositions are troublesome. This page contains some interesting (sometimes troublesome) prepositions with brief usage notes. However, the only way English language learners can master the intricacies of preposition usage is through practice and paying close attention to speech and the written word.
Prepositions of Time: at, on, in, for, and since
We use at to designate specific times:
- The train is due at 12:15 p.m.
We use on to designate days and dates:
- My brother is coming on Monday.
- We’re having a party on the First of July.
We use in for nonspecific times during a day, a month, a season, or a year:
- She likes to jog in the morning.
- It’s too cold in winter to run outside.
- He started the job in 1971.
- He’s going to quit in August.
We use for when we measure time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years):
- He held his breath for seven minutes.
- She’s lived there for seven years.
- The British and Irish have been quarreling for seven centuries.
We use since with a specific date or time:
- He’s worked here since 1970.
- She’s been sitting in the waiting room since two-thirty.
Prepositions of Place: at, on, and in
We use at for specific addresses:
- The Prime Minister lives at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
We use on to designate names of streets, avenues, etc.:
- His house is on Sussex Drive.
And we use in for the names of land-areas (towns, counties, states, countries, and continents):
- The Prime Minister lives in Ottawa.
- Ottawa is in Ontario.
Prepositions of Location: in, at, on, and no preposition
* You may sometimes use different prepositions for these locations.
Prepositions of Movement: to and no preposition
We use to in order to express movement toward a place:
- They were driving to work together.
- She’s going to the dentist’s office this morning.
Toward and towards are also helpful prepositions to express movement. These are simply variant spellings of the same word; use whichever sounds better to you:
- We’re moving toward the light.
- This is a big step towards the project’s completion.
With the words home, downtown, uptown, inside, outside, downstairs, and upstairs, we use no preposition:
- Grandma went upstairs.
- Grandpa went home.
- They both went outside.
Prepositions in Parallel Form
(Click here for a definition and discussion of parallelism.) When two words or phrases are used in parallel and require the same preposition to be idiomatically correct, the preposition does not have to be used twice.
- You can wear that outfit in summer and winter.
- The female was both attracted and distracted by the male’s dance.
However, when the idiomatic use of phrases calls for different prepositions, we must be careful not to omit one of them.
- The children were interested in and disgusted by the movie.
- It was clear that this player could both contribute to and learn from every game he played.
On Ending a Sentence with a Preposition
You may have learned that ending a sentence with a preposition is a serious breach of grammatical etiquette. It doesn’t take a grammarian to spot a sentence-ending preposition, so this is an easy rule to get caught up on. Although it is often easy to remedy the offending preposition, sometimes it isn’t, and repair efforts sometimes result in a clumsy sentence. “Indicate the book you are quoting from” is not greatly improved with “Indicate from which book you are quoting.”