Prepositions

Definition and Concept

Prepositions are all those groups of words or parts of speech that define a relationship between other words in a sentence, especially nouns, phrases and noun phrases.

The relationship can be either spatial or temporal. Which means it can define a relationship of time or position. Unlike other parts of speech, Prepositions are distinctly known for their role they perform in a sentence. We’ll come back to this point later.

In this article we explore not just a preposition, but all those words and groups of words that perform the job of a preposition.

At the end of this article, the reader will be able to:

  • Classify Prepositions based on Role
  • Understand the concept of Prepositional Phrases
  • Insert the right prepositions in any sentence

Prepositions of Direction & Location (Also called Prepositions of Movement)

As defined, Prepositions describe the relationship between two nouns or pronouns. What kind of relationship? We use that to classify Prepositions into four major types: Prepositions of Direction, Location, Time, & Agent [1].

Prepositions of Direction

These Prepositions specify direction; they simply direct one noun or pronoun to the other. Observe the following examples:

  • I am going to the opera tonight.
  • Are we getting into the club?
  • He might be onto a solution here.
  • Could you pass the sugar to me?
  • An unknown creature washed onto the seashore last night.
  • We’ll be diving into a new market space next quarter.

From the above examples, we see that every preposition above is directing the subject noun or pronoun to another noun/pronoun.

The basic preposition of direction is to. The other prepositions onto and into are derivatives of to by combining it with prepositions of Location. Know more about Prepositions of Location next.

Some more examples of Prepositions of Direction are:

To/towards: These Prepositions direct a noun to a specific direction, that is the other noun/pronoun. Check the examples below:

  • This ship is heading straight towards that iceberg, and we can do nothing about it.
  • She came up to him and asked what was going on.
  • There will be a door to your left.
  • Kick that gun towards me, when I ask you to.
  • (You) Get to the exit now!

Through/into: These Prepositions direct a noun/pronoun into another noun/pronoun. Observe the examples below:

  • We have to get through this underpass.
  • What kind of trouble did you get into?
  • Why are we going through this procedure again?
  • He looked straight into my eyes and lied.

Across/over/along: These Prepositions specify a direction in the vicinity of a noun/pronoun. Observe the examples below:

  • We just flew over London, didn’t we?
  • You have to turn the knob over.
  • That thief just jumped over the wall like a cat.
  • Don’t hit the ball across the stumpline.
  • Are we rowing this boat across the river?
  • You’ll find the chemist’s shop along this path.
  • That is a beautiful straight drive shot along the line.

Prepositions of Location [1] (Also called Prepositions of Place and Prepositions of Space)

These Prepositions specify the place; the noun/pronoun describing the other noun/pronoun is the exact location. Observe the following examples:

  • It’s right in front of you.
  • You need to be at the drop site in 20 minutes.
  • How many of them were actually in the game?
  • I am on site and ready to proceed.
  • You need to place your foot between the tram lines.
  • Step away from the hostage now!
  • Place that mug on the table behind the couch.

The three majorly used Prepositions of Location are in, on and at. We have explored them in the examples above. Let’s see a few more commonly used Prepositions of Location below:

  • Why do you have to sulk in front of the guests?
  • We have to be in front of the herd at all times.
  • Your next act is between Sheila’s song and Matthew’s dance.
  • She is stuck between the doors.
  • How do I know who’s behind this coup?
  • Since I’m the last in the queue, you’ve to get behind me.
  • Look who’s back from a long vacation!
  • I could not step away from the gate.
  • Rise above these petty needs and change the world.
  • This situation is above his pay grade.
  • Why is there a pool of water all over the floor here?
  • You spilled sauce all over my new carpet.
  • Whenever you feel any tremors, get below a table.
  • I found a blank cheque below the vase.
  • I am very close to the address.
  • She lives close to that restaurant we went to last Saturday.

These are some of the Prepositions used to specify absolute or relative location.

Here is a list of all the Prepositions that could be used to describe location:

 

 above  among  close to  next to  over  to
 across  by  down  near  outside  up
 after  behind  from  onto  past  under
 around  below  in front of   out of  round from… to
 against  between  into  off  through
 along  beside  inside  opposite  towards

 

Distinguishing between Prepositions of Location & Direction:

A peculiar thing you must noted above is how effortlessly we’ve used the same Prepositions in both the categories. Let’s pick those examples again:

  • We just flew over London, didn’t we? (Direction)
  • Why is there a pool of water all over the floor here? (Location)
  • Could we get into the club? (Direction)
  • We cannot go into the castle. (Location)

In the examples above, the responsibility of both the prepositions towards their respective nouns/pronouns is identical. The object nouns are the location and the direction. Thus, these Prepositions are both Prepositions of Direction & Location.

But that’s not all. Explore the examples below:

  • The aircraft landed on the runway. (Correct)
  • The aircraft landed onto the runway. (Incorrect)
  • We’re in the stadium. (Correct)
  • We’re into the stadium. (Incorrect)

As discussed above, Prepositions of Direction are combined with Prepositions of Location to form prepositions like into and onto. But we don’t always need that. In the second and last example, we see that the subject + noun combination doesn’t require a Preposition of Direction. So, using into and onto is unnecessary.

We shall discuss separately on how to decide on the appropriate Preposition in a sentence.

Prepositions of Time & Agent

Prepositions of Time

As the name suggests, Prepositions of Time are used to describe nouns or phrases describing time, duration or the occurrence of a particular event. Let’s understand them through a few examples below:

  • We have a club meet at 4 pm today.
  • Why is there a PT session on every alternate day?
  • The train to Hyderabad is rescheduled to 5 pm in the evening.
  • Can we have our summer break from 1st May to 7th May?
  • I have been waiting for you since the noon.
  • I have been waiting for you for the last three hours.
  • Let’s wait until the next train arrives.
  • We used to stay up all night during our stay at the inn.

There are basically three main Prepositions of Time, in, at, and on. They’re the same as the Prepositions of Location.

However, unlike the general confusion we had in distinguishing Prepositions of Location and Direction, it’s quite easy to distinguish between Prepositions of Time and Location; for they relate different nouns.

Observe the following examples:

  • I will be at the office at 9 am tomorrow.
    (First ‘at’ is a Preposition of Location, next one is a Preposition of Time)
  • We’ll get in our room in the evening.
    (First ‘in’ is a Preposition of Location, next one is a Preposition of Time)
  • On this day in 1969, we landed on the moon.
    (First ‘on’ is a Preposition of Time, next one is a Preposition of Location)

Now that’s easier, right? There are a few trickier examples though, let’s save them for the last.

Prepositions of Agent

Prepositions of agent are those that describe one noun/pronoun as the cause of the action verb linked with the subject noun/pronoun. Let’s examine a few examples:

  • You look like you’ve been hit by a train.
  • I’ll get all the feedbacks recorded by the hiring managers.
  • I need the dosage recommended by Dr Malhotra.
  • Raghav is down with the flu.
  • Would she be leaving with her father?

There are only two major prepositions of agent, i.e. by and with. They describe the association of two nouns/pronouns (with) or how a subject noun/pronoun is influenced by another noun/pronoun (by).

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional Phrases are defined as those groups of words that contain a Preposition, the object noun/pronoun & modifiers (if any). Let’s see a few examples below:

  • Would she be leaving with her father?
  • You look like you’ve been hit by a train.
  • Rise above your petty needs and change the world.
  • We stayed at the inn by the mountains. (2 prepositional phrases)
  • The guitar at the back is what I’ll take.
  • Are we going to that park beside the shopping mall? (2 prepositional phrases)

The usual arrangement is as follows:

Prepositional Phrase = Preposition + (Modifier) + Object Noun/Pronoun

Note: The modifier in the expression above can be a Demonstrative Pronoun, an Article, or a Determiner.

We’ve literally taken out some of the very examples we’ve picked earlier, where we’ve learnt about the prepositions in particular. So why study Prepositional Phrases differently? As mentioned in the introduction, it’s more about the role they perform. So let’s see what role Prepositional Phrases can perform.

A prepositional phrase can be an adjective phrase or an adverb phrase, based on the part of speech it modifies. Let’s look at a few examples of adverb phrases first.

Adverb Phrases

  • She came up to him and asked what was going on.
  • Don’t hit the ball across the stump-line.
  • You need to place your foot between the tram lines.
  • Step away from the hostage now!
  • Why do you always sulk in front of the guests?

In each of the examples above, the prepositional phrase describes or gives more information about the verb of the sentence. It performs the same role as an adverb. Hence all of these are examples of the adverb phrase.

Adjective Phrases

  • We stayed at the cabin by the river.
  • The structure at the south district is rusting away.
  • The mannequin in the locker is not for sale.
  • That cable to your right is not to be touched, ever.
  • The boy with him is his son.

In each of the examples above, the prepositional phrase describes or gives more information about the subject noun of the sentence. It performs the same role as an adjective. Hence all of these are examples of the adjective phrase.

Using the Right Preposition in a Sentence

One of the major difficulties in forming sentences in the English language is insertion of the right preposition while linking nouns/pronouns. To make this bit easier, we discuss a few common tips and traps while deciding on the perfect preposition.

The same Prepositions can work as two or more different types

While we’ve listed examples of Prepositions under different categories, there are many that aren’t exclusive to any category. See the examples below:

  • You have to wait by the side of the entrance. (Location)
  • You have to be there by 5 pm today. (Time)
  • You have to get the notes written by Rajeev. (Agent)

As you observe in the above examples, the same preposition by can feature as a Preposition of Location, Time or Agent.

We’ve already explored how the same Preposition can function as a Preposition of Location and Direction, and then again, some which functioned as Preposition of Location and Time. Refer the examples in the previous sections to understand more.

Some nouns take one Preposition, some take the other

Choosing between Prepositions of Location is another confusing exercise, which can be made easier with examples. Let’s look at some:

  • He might be onto a solution here.
  • An unknown creature washed onto the seashore last night.
  • We’ll be diving into a new market space next quarter.
  • We cannot go into the castle.
  • Are we getting into the club?
  • We’re in the stadium.
  • How many of them were actually in the game?
  • I am on site and ready to proceed.
  • The aircraft landed on the runway.

The above examples help you look at four prepositions broadly: in, into, on & onto. While some subject noun/pronoun + verb combination requires the exact direction, we use into/onto. When simply the location is enough, we use in/on. Understanding the needs of the subject and verb is the key to choosing the right preposition.

Let’s look at another set of examples:

  • I’m getting in the car.
  • I’m getting on the bus.
  • I’m getting on the plane.
  • I’m getting on the train.

This is a general observation while referring to object nouns. Though the nouns bus/plane/train are expected to take the preposition in, (since the subject is moving inside the object) they don’t follow the general norm. These are some exceptions that we’re expected to remember while choosing the preposition.

With these two major tips, picking the right preposition gets more comfortable for all.

Conclusion

What makes Prepositions amazing is that a relatively smaller word class (also called part of speech) performs different linking roles in the same sentence. Classification of these words becomes a mess unless we understand one concept above all:

“Prepositions are distinctly known for their role they perform in a sentence.”

Notes

[1] Some popular sources study Prepositions of Location as two different types: Preposition of Place and Prepositions of Space. Let’s recall a few examples to understand it better:

  • Your next act is between Sheila’s song and Matthew’s dance.
  • Since I’m the last in the queue, you’ve to get behind me.
  • Rise above these petty needs and change the world.
  • I found a blank cheque below the vase.

These Prepositions describe the space occupied by the subject with respect to the object. Hence, they’re studied differently as Prepositions of Space.

In this article, we study them together as Prepositions of Location, to avoid further confusion as both these categories specify either an absolute or relative location. But do note if we go by the classification above, there are five types of Prepositions: Prepositions of Direction, Place, Space, Time, and Agent.