Prepositions: Use and Basic Rules

In English grammar, a preposition is a word that shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. Prepositions are words like in and outabove and below, and to and from, and they’re words we use all the time.

How useful are prepositions? Just look at how many prepositions are italicized in this simple sentence from E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web:” “For the first few days of his life, Wilbur was allowed to live in a box near the stove in the kitchen.”

Prepositions in English Grammar

Prepositions are one of the basic parts of speech and are among the words that we use most when composing sentences. They are also a member of a closed word class, meaning that it is very rare for a new preposition to enter the language. In fact, there are only about 100 of them in English.

Prepositions often refer to location (“under the table”), direction (“to the south”), or time (“past midnight”). They can also be used to convey other relationships: agency (by); comparison (like, as . . . as); possession (of); purpose (for); source (from, out of).

Simple Prepositions

Many prepositions are made up on only one word and are called simple prepositions. These include short and very common words like as, at, by, for, and of. You also use prepositions such as about, between, into, like, onto, since, than, through, and with, within, and without to show a relationship between words.

There are many occasions where you might confuse prepositions. For example, sometimes it is difficult to know when you should use in, into, on, or at. This is because their meanings are very similar, so you have to look at the context of the sentence.

Many prepositions have an opposite as well. For instance, you can use before or afterinside or outsideoff or onover or under, and up or down.

Quite a few prepositions express the relationship of things in space. Examples of these include aboard, across, amid, among, around, atop, behind, beneath, beside, beyond, near, over, round, and upon.

Prepositions can also refer to time. Among the most common are after, before, during, till, and until.

Other prepositions have unique uses or can be used in multiple ways. Some of these include about, against, along, despite, regarding, throughout, toward, and unlike.

Complex Prepositions

In addition to the simple prepositions, several word groups can perform the same grammatical function. These are called complex prepositions. They are two- or three-word units that combine one or two simple prepositions with another word.

Within this category, you have phrases like in addition to and such as. Whenever you say thanks to or in between, you are also using a complex preposition.

Identifying Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions are not 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.

Prepositional phrases add meaning to the nouns and verbs in sentences.

They usually tell us where, when, or how and the words of a prepositional phrase can often be rearranged.

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.

Learning to identify prepositional phrases is often a matter of practice. After awhile, you will come to realize just how frequently we rely on them.

Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

You may have a heard the “rule” that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of those “rules” that you simply don’t have to put up with. It is based on the etymology of “preposition,” from the Greek for “put in front,” as well as a false analogy to Latin.

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, in “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” 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.”

Essentially, you can ignore this rule and you can cite Fowler to anyone who tells you otherwise. Go ahead and end your sentence with a preposition if you want to.

Prepositions Functioning as Another Part of Speech

Just because you see one of the prepositions we’ve mentioned used, does not mean that they are actually being used as a preposition. It depends on the circumstances and this is one of those tricky parts of the English language, so don’t let these fool you.

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. (Before is used as a preposition.)
Many people run out of ideas long before they run out of words. (Before is used as a conjunction.)

Some prepositions (including about, across, around, before, down, in, on, out, and up) also moonlight as adverbs. These are sometimes called prepositional adverbs or adverbial particles.

Beth walked up the driveway. (The preposition up is followed by the object.)
Beth looked up. (The prepositional adverb up is modifying the verb looked.)

Deverbal Prepositions

Transitive prepositions that take the same form as -ing participles or -ed participles are called deverbal prepositions. It is a rather short list, but it is important to understand that these are also prepositions.

  • according (to)
  • allowing (for)
  • barring
  • concerning
  • counting
  • excepting
  • excluding
  • failing
  • following
  • given
  • gone
  • granted
  • including
  • owing (to)
  • pertaining (to)
  • regarding
  • respecting
  • saving
  • touching
  • wanting