What Is a Preposition?

People use prepositions every day. In spite of their regular use, however, they are often misused and misunderstood, especially by those whose first language is not English. Today, we’re going to learn the basic functions and purposes of prepositions, as well as how to use them (especially in an academic setting).

What is a Preposition?

A preposition’s main purpose is to convey to the reader when and where an object is in relation to something else. It basically links a noun or a pronoun (which serves as the object) to other words within a sentence. A preposition may better express how an action is done, or it may state the movement, position, and possession of an object within the sentence.

We could compare a preposition to adhesive tape: just as tape holds two objects together, a preposition “binds” words together to form a meaningful sentence. We have to give credit to prepositions for being an important part of a sentence. They give meaning to a sentence and help make it more complex and enjoyable to read.

Example 1: The dancer panicked behind the curtains.

If we break the sentence down, we can see that the word behind connects the noun curtains with the verb panicked. The word helps us understand where the dancer panicked.

Example 2: The teacher has qualms concerning the student’s output.

If we study the sentence, we can see that concerning connects the teacher’s qualms with the student’s output. The preposition expresses why the teacher has qualms.

Aside from behind and concerning, there are also other prepositions. Each of these words has its own meaning. Some of the most commonly used prepositions include the following: above, after, along, at, before, below, between, beyond, during, for, in, on, through, toward, and within.

What is a Prepositional Phrase?

When a preposition begins a  group of words that express their own idea, we have a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase contains a preposition, the object of the preposition (which includes a noun or a pronoun), and any appropriate modifier of the object. It is important to be able to identify prepositional phrases. This is because the object within the prepositional phrase should not be misidentified as the direct object of the verb.

To further demonstrate what a prepositional phrase is, we have given you a few examples.

 Example 3: My dog jumped over the fence.

In the sentence, the prepositional phrase is over the fence. If we deconstruct the prepositional phrase, we can identify over as the preposition of the sentence, fence as the object of the preposition, and the as the modifier (in this case, a definite article).

 Example 4: We walked to the forest near the mountains.

If we study the sentence, we can actually identify two prepositional phrases here: to the forest and near the mountains. For the first phrase, to is the preposition while the and forest are the object and modifier of the preposition. In the second prepositional phrase, near is the preposition while the and mountains are the object and modifier of the preposition. Where did the subject (we) walk? To the forest. Where was the forest located? Near the mountains.

What is a Particle?

Here is where things go a little tricky. There are some words that look like prepositions, but they are part of a verb. These are called particles.  While they are similar in appearance and often even use a preposition, particles do not really form a relationship between the object and the rest of the sentence. Instead, particles act as either a phrasal verb or an infinitive verb. Let’s look at a few examples..

Example 5: His mother will look after his son while he’s away.

In the example, look after is the phrasal verb. It means to take care of someone. This means that the word after becomes a particle, a portion of the phrasal verb. Since it does not introduce any prepositional phrase, it is not a preposition.

Example 6: She likes to be the butterfly in the play.

In this example, the phrase to be is an infinitive form of a verb. The word to does not introduce a prepositional phrase, so it is not used as a preposition in the sentence.

To illustrate how prepositions and particles differ, let us try to study some more examples.

Example 7: Do not give in to temptation.

Example 8: You look in the bag.

In example 7, the word in was used as a particle. Specifically, it formed the phrasal verb give in, which means to surrender.  In the next example, the term was used as a preposition. It established the relationship between the object (the bag) and the verb (look). Where did you look? In the bag.

Example 9: She bought him flowers to make up for her mistakes.

Example 10: Look up at the sky and appreciate the beauty of the stars.

In example 9, the word up formed the phrasal verb make up, which means to compensate for something. So, it does not really establish a relationship of any sort within the sentence. In the second example, the term up would link the verb (look) to the object (the sky).

Wrapping Up

Prepositions are vital in sentences, because they express how things are done. They give us directions (“Look up at the sky.”), timing (“After the sun goes down, bats come out to catch their breakfast of bugs.”), and introduce direct and indirect objects of verbs (“I’m writing you concerning your recent grant proposal.”)  Because we use them in common language, it is important to be able to understand how to use each of these words appropriately.

Finally, here is a list some of the most common prepositions:


Other words that can act as prepositions:


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