Prepositions

Learning Objectives

  • Correctly identify and use prepositions in a sentence

Prepositions are relation words; they can indicate location, time, or other more abstract relationships. A preposition combines with another word (usually a noun or pronoun) called the complement. Below, the prepositions are in bold, and their complements are in italics:An open box with two arrows pointing inside of it.

  • The woods behind my house are super creepy at night.
  • She sang until three in the morning.
  • They were happy for him.
  • He counted to three.

Prepositions generally come before their complements (e.g., in England, under the table, by Elena) but occasionally occur after, as in the following example:

  • Financial limitations notwithstanding, Phil paid back his debts.

Watch It

Prepositions of location are pretty easily understood (near, at, over, under, etc.), and prepositions concerning time are, too (before, after, during, etc.). Prepositions of “more abstract relationships,” however, are a little more nebulous in their definition. The video below gives a good overview of this category of prepositions:

You can view the transcript for “Prepositions of neither space nor time” here (opens in new window).

Note: The video mentions that prepositions are a “closed group,” but it never actually explains what that means. A closed group simply refers to a part of speech that doesn’t allow in new words. While it’s easy to invent new nouns (e.g., selfie, Google), you can’t invent new words in a closed group.

So far, all of the prepositions we’ve looked at are single words (and most of them are one syllable). According to one ranking, the most common English prepositions are on, in, to, by, for, with, at, of, from, as.

There are also some prepositions comprised of more than one word:

  • in spite of (She made it to work in spite of the terrible traffic.)
  • by means of (He traveled by means of a boat.)
  • except for (Joan invited everyone to her party except for Ben.)
  • next to (Go ahead and sit down next to Jean-Claude.)

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Using Prepositions

Probably the greatest challenge with prepositions is knowing which one to use. Some verbs require specific prepositions. Here’s a table of some of the most commonly misused preposition/verb pairs:

different from comply with dependent on think of or about
need of profit by glad of bestow upon

Some verbs take a different preposition, depending on the object of the sentence:

agree with a person agree to a proposition part from (a person) part with (a thing)
differ from (person or thing) differ from or with an opinion confide in (to trust in) confide to (to intrust to)
reconcile with (a person) reconcile to (a statement or idea) confer on (to give) confer with (to talk with)
compare with (to determine value) compare to (because of similarity) convenient to (a place) convenient for (a purpose)

When multiple objects take the same preposition, you don’t need to repeat the preposition. For example, in the sentence “I’ll read any book by J.K. Rowling or R. L. Stine,” both J. K. Rowling and R. L. Stine are objects of the preposition by, so it only needs to appear once in the sentence. However, you can’t do this when you have different prepositions. Consider the familiar saying “He fell out of the frying pan and into the fire.” If you leave out one of the prepositions, as in “We fell out of the frying pan and the fire,” the statement suggests that we fell out of the frying pan and out of the fire—which might be a preferable outcome, but it’s a significant change of meaning!

Which Preposition?

  • The difference between beside and besides can be confusing. Beside means next to. Besides means in addition to.
  • The difference between between and among can also be confusing. You should use between when referring to two people or things, and you should use among when referring to more than two people or things.

Prepositions in Sentences

You may have heard about prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase includes a preposition and its complement (e.g., “behind the house” or “from the post office“). These phrases can appear at the beginning or end of sentences. When they occur at the beginning of a sentence, they typically need a comma afterward:

  • You can drop that off behind the house.
  • Before a hurricane, it’s a good idea to board up your windows.
  • As an editor, she does a lot of reading.

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

It is 100 percent okay to end a sentence with a preposition. The rule against doing so stems from Latin, which belongs to a completely different language family than English. Using a terminal preposition can often make your writing smoother and more concise. Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put,” when he was criticized for his use of terminal prepositions. (A more natural way to phrase Churchill’s glib quote would be “This is the sort of English I will not put up with.”)

However, it’s still best to avoid using terminal prepositions unnecessarily. If your sentence ends with a preposition and would still mean the same thing without the preposition, take it out. For example:

  • Where are you at?
  • That’s not what it’s used for.

If you remove at, the sentence becomes “Where are you?” This means the same thing, so removing at is a good idea. However, if you remove for, the sentence becomes “That’s not what it’s used,” which doesn’t make sense.

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