English Grammar

Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. A preposition is a particle (a small, uninflected word) that shows a relationship between its object and another word or other words. As many students have learned, one can name many prepositions by thinking of any place a mouse can go: in, into, around, up, down, over, under, through, etc.; however, many prepositions have nothing to do with place: with, without, for, except, besides, since, of, etc. When used in a sentence, a preposition must have an object. If a particular word does not have an object, it is not a preposition. It may look exactly like a preposition (i.e., be spelled the same), but without an object it is either an adverb, a conjunction, or a part of a so-called phrasal verb. Here are some examples of prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions that have the same spelling:

- Jack Horner was sitting in a corner. (The preposition in has the object corner.)

- They just walked in. (Here in is an adverb. Adverbs do not have objects.)

 

- Poor Jethro had to stay after school. (The preposition after has the object school.)

- He stayed for an hour after the other students had left. (Here after is a subordinating conjunction. It introduces an entire clause.)

 

- The dog chased the cat around the house. (The object of the preposition around is house.)

- The flu is going around. (Here around is an adverb.)-

 

- There is no one here but us. (The object of the preposition but is the pronoun us.)

- She went to school, but her brother stayed home. (Here but is a coordinating conjunction.)

 

2. On this page, only nouns and pronouns will be used as objects of prepositions; you can see elsewhere how gerunds and gerund phrases, infinitives and infinitive phrases, as well as noun clauses can be objects of prepositions (click on "gerunds," "infinitives," and "noun clauses" in my "English Grammar" index). It is even possible for a prepositional phrase to be used as the object of a preposition.

 

3. Some prepositions consist of more than one word. Examples of these phrasal prepositions are out of, along with, as for, and by means of.

 

4. Adverbs can modify prepositions and prepositional phrases. Examples: The fireworks display will begin right after the game. (The adverb right modifies the preposition after.) The food arrived just in time for the party. (The adverb just modifies the prepositional phrase in time.)

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5. Most prepositional phrases are adverbial or adjectival. Adverbial prepositional phrases modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Adjectival prepositional phrases modify nouns and pronouns. Here are some examples of adverbial prepositional phrases:

- Carolyn and Barbara strolled through the park. (The prepositional phrase through the park modifies the verb strolled. It tells where Carolyn and Barbara strolled.)

- Transparent in the middle, the glass is increasingly opaque as it approaches the frame. (The prepositional phrase in the middle modifies the adjective transparent.)

- Everyone moved closer to the storyteller. (The prepositional phrase to the storyteller modifies the adverb closer.)

Here are examples of adjectival prepositional phrases:

- All eyes were focused on the woman on the tightrope. (The prepositional phrase on the tightrope modifies the noun woman.)

- Someone in the corner stood up. (The prepositional phrase in the corner modifies the pronoun someone.)

- As far as anyone knew, he was in good health. (The prepositional phrase in good health functions as a predicate adjective.)

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6. To determine whether a particular prepositional phrase is adjectival, ask if it describes, limits, or modifies a noun or pronoun. Also, it is sometimes helpful to try moving a problematic prepositional phrase around in the sentence; if it resists being moved from its position next to a noun or pronoun, it is probably adjectival. For example, in the sentence If you look carefully, you can see the man in the moon, the prepositional phrase in the moon limits man to a particular man, the one in the moon. Whatís more, you simply cannot move in the moon successfully (in the moon you can see the man and you can see in the moon the man just donít work); therefore, it is adjectival. In the sentence I bought five new fish for the aquarium in the den, the prepositional phrase in the den cannot be moved successfully (try it!), but for the aquarium in the den can. In the den is adjectival and for the aquarium in the den is adverbial. More importantly, in the den restricts aquarium to a particular one.

Letís take a look at the familiar sentence She has rings on her fingers and bells on her toes. Once in a while, one meets prepositional phrases that seem to work well as adverbial modifiers and as adjectival modifiers. Here is a reconstruction of the sentence that argues for adverbial modification: On her fingers she has rings, and on her toes she has bells. But the following rewording seems to point to adjectival modification: She wears finger rings and toe bells. If you favor adverbial modification in this case (and I think I do), then you have to do something unorthodox with the diagram to show (1) that on her fingers modifies has with respect to the direct object rings and (2) that on her toes modifies the same verb with respect to the direct object bells

There are additional criteria for distinguishing prepositional phrases used as predicate adjectives from those that are adverbial. In the sentence We are still at the beginning of robot evolution, the prepositional phrase at the beginning of robot evolution is adjectival. To be a predicate adjective, a prepositional phrase has to indicate a quality or characteristic (an attribute) of the subject and not a physical place where the subject happens to be. At the beginning of robot evolution meets this requirement. Also, a prepositional phrase that functions as a predicate adjective can usually be replaced by a simple adjective; for example, in the sentence She is in a good mood, in a good mood can be replaced by happy. At the beginning can by replaced by neophytic.

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7. The phrase nothing to do is easy to diagram. Just show that the infinitive to do modifies nothing. But how does one diagram nothing to work with (after all, one canít diagram an objectless preposition)? This noun phrase is an elliptical form of nothing with which to work; however, this phrase is also elliptical. It cannot be diagrammed because which is a relative pronoun and must appear in a relative clause. Instead it makes sense to expand nothing to work with to nothing with which one is able to work. Now we have a relative clause (with which one is able to work), with nothing as the antecedent of the relative pronoun which, and this of course can be diagrammed. A simpler (and defensible) solution is to construe with as an adverb in an infinitive phrase.

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8. Like: In the sentence He slept like a log, one can construe like a log as an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying the verb slept. Susan Emolyn Harman would argue that this like can also been seen as an adverb because like is able to be compared (more like, most like); in this case, log would be an adverbial objective. Because it is unnecessarily complicated and moreover involves a questionable use of the word like, one should not consider like a log an elliptical subordinate clause (the full clause being like a log sleeps).

In the sentence He looked like a person who had been run over by a truck, like a person is a prepositional phrase functioning as a predicate adjective. Harman would prefer to call like a predicate adjective, with person as an adverbial objective.

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9. Near: In a sentence like They are already near the door, near can be understood as a preposition or as a predicate adjective. In the former case, door would be the object of a preposition, in the latter case an adverbial objective. In They slept near the edge of the canyon, near can be construed as an adverb or a preposition.

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10. Where can be a pronoun as it is in the following sentence, in which it is used as the object of a preposition.: Where was the smoke coming from?

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11. One way of varying sentence structure is to move prepositional phrases around. For example, instead of writing Mary went to a play on Thursday evening, one can write On Thursday evening Mary went to a play. In general, adverbial prepositional phrases of time can be readily moved, whereas some adverbial prepositional phrases of place refuse to be relocated. It sounds downright bad to say To a play Mary went on Thursday evening. Still, other such phrases can be moved without a problem; for instance, They will build a bank on the corner can be rewritten as On the corner they will build a bank. As for the remaining adverbial prepositional phrases (phrases like for her boss, with their associates, without a dime, because of the rain, and about the war), most can come first without a problem (without a problem, most can come first). Adjectival prepositional phrases, on the other hand, are bound to the noun they modify. Try moving the prepositional phrase in the sentence He didnít like the color of the tie. It just doesnít work.

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12. Read the following sentence and ask yourself if it is well written: The class did the assignment in the allotted time, accurately, and without complaining. It could be better, right? The writer has violated the rule of parallelism, which prescribes that each element of a series (be it a series of words, of phrases, or of clauses) be of the same grammatical structure. The series in the allotted time, accurately, and without complaining, consists of two prepositional phrases and one adverb. One way to improve the sentence is to rewrite the series correctly, as in the allotted time, with no mistakes, and without complaint. Notice that I have replaced the adverb accurately with the prepositional phrase with no mistakes. That gives us three prepositional phrases. To make all three objects regular nouns, I changed the gerund complaining to complaint. Of course, the series could be changed to punctually, accurately, and uncomplainingly, also a parallel series.

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13. The object of a preposition is never the subject of a sentence; therefore, in sentences like One of the participants comes from Peru, One of the courses being offered this semester has caught my eye, and even One of the many foreigners who are studying at our university is my roommate, the main verbs are singular (comes, has, is) because the subject, one, is singular.

On the other hand, in the expressions any of and a number of, any and number are considered plural when they have plural referents; used as subjects, they require plural verbs, as follows:

 

- Do any of the applicants have the necessary credentials?

- A number of her friends were already there.

Number in the expression the number of is usually singular:

- The number of accused witches executed in Salem, Massachusetts, was under twenty.

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14. Is there anyone in the twenty-first century who still insists that a sentence not end in a preposition?

- What are you talking about?

- They told us where they came from.

- The hunter didnít know what he was aiming at.

When did you last hear even the most pedantic professor say About what are you talking? And if you heard They told us from where they came, you could bet the speaker (a) learned English as an adult or (b) just fell from the moon. Letís hope that all hunters know what they are aiming at, but letís also hope that this is not expressed as All hunters know at what they are aiming.

15. You may have heard the story of how Winston Churchill reprimanded a civil servant who had gone to ridiculous lengths to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill wrote to him: "This is nonsense up with which I will not put." Churchillís idea, of course, was to demonstrate the absurdity of insisting that prepositions not be placed at the end of sentences but before their objects. Unfortunately, the "prepositions" that Churchill chose, up and with, are, in this context, not prepositions at all but parts of a phrasal verb. Another phrasal verb is try on. Since on is not a preposition here, we cannot say On what do you want to try? (but What do you want to try on?) or Thatís the jacket on which you just tried (but Thatís the jacket that you just tried on).

On the other hand, one cannot simply pile up prepositions at the end of a sentence. The third edition of H. W. Fowlerís Dictionary of Modern English Usage, referred to simply as New Fowler, cites a brief dialog that drives home this point:

Child: I want to be read to.

Nurse: What book do you want to be read to out of?

Child: Robinson Crusoe

(The nurse brings a copy of Swiss Family Robinson.)

Child: What did you bring me that book to be read to out of for?

Aside from the fact that the word to in the first sentence of the dialog probably cannot be called a preposition (prepositions need objects, and to does not have one in I want to be read to), this is a useful illustration of the folly of terminal prepositional overload (pun intended).

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16. Awhile (one word) is always an adverb; it cannot be the object of a preposition; thus, the sentence They stayed for awhile is incorrect. If you want to use for, you must use the two-word form a while: They stayed for a while. You may also omit for and write They stayed a while or They stayed awhile. (Of course, while in They stayed a while is an adverbial objective.)

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17. H. W. Fowler (II, 410) points out that the preposition without with a compound object yields one meaning, while the same preposition, repeated (each time with a single object), may yield another. Here is an example:

- A fortunate few accomplish great things in life without education or financial resources.

- A fortunate few accomplish great things in life without education or without financial resources.

In the first sentence, without education or financial resources means "without education and without financial resources." Of those who rise to great heights, a fortunate few have neither education nor financial resources. This is not the case in the second sentence, whose meaning is that a fortunate few succeed despite the fact that they lack either education or financial resources--one or the other.

 

18. Fowler warns his readers to be aware of the possibility of the omission of a necessary of or of the inclusion of a nonsensical of. He calls such abuses of of "crimes against grammar"; here are several examples (mine, not Fowlerís):

- The cessation of hostility between the warring factions, which had gone on unabated for decades with great loss of life and destruction of property, and of the formation of a government seemed impossible. The writer is misled by his own use of of to insert a nonsensical of before the formation.

- She recalled the thrill of standing at the podium and of seeing all eyes directed at her. The second of is a distraction; it tends to separate the standing and the seeing, which belong together.

- The couple hoped that the addition of a swimming pool and a three-car garage would make the house more attractive to potential buyers. Did they add the three-car garage? If so, an of is needed after and. If not, the sentence needs to be reconstructed.

 

19. Even though it is often heard, do not use these kind of in formal writing. If you want to use the demonstrative adjective this/these with kind of and kinds of, your choices are this kind of and these kinds of.

Likewise to be avoided is of a in expressions like that big of a deal or that nice of a girl. Corrections: that big a deal, that nice a girl.

Use off, not off of. They got off the bus is quite sufficient.

 

20. For the most part, all can replace all of. Exceptions:

- before a personal pronoun: all of them, all of you

- in fixed expressions like all of a sudden

21. It is never correct to say between you and between me. In this case, between requires a compound object. 

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22. When but is used as a preposition (as another way of saying except), its pronoun object is in the objective case. When but is used as a conjunction introducing an elliptical clause, the pronoun takes the case it would take if the clause were complete. Simple in theory, these rules are difficult to apply. Authorities often cannot decide if a given use of but is prepositional or conjunctive. A compromise rule that has been offered is this: If the pronoun in question comes at the end of a sentence, use the objective case. If it comes elsewhere, make the pronoun agree with the noun or pronoun with which it is connected by but. Examples:

- He wanted no one but her.

- No one but she wanted him.

- Everyone but he stood.

- Everyone stood but him.

 

23. It is rather easy to misplace a prepositional phrase in which unlike is the preposition. Consider the following sentence:

- The recruit feared that he would never develop-- unlike his drill sergeant--nerves of steel.

What the sentence was supposed to say is The recruit feared that he would never develop--like his drill sergeant--nerves of steel. To retain the original preposition, the prepositional phrase must be relocated:

- The recruit feared that he--unlike his drill sergeant-- would never develop nerves of steel.

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24. Many verbs and adjectives are tied to certain prepositions. Sometimes even native speakers donít know which preposition to use after a particular verb or adjective. Here are some of the troublesome expressions:

- compare with: Use with when you are examining two or more things for the purpose of discovering their similarities and dissimilarities.

- compare to: Use to when you are representing something as like something else: She compared his voice to a foghorn.

- enamored of

- different from: Use from unless the prepositional object is a clause.

- different than: Use than when the prepositional object is a clause.

- dissimilar to

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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