3.6 Prepositions


This section of Ch. 3 will cover the following topics:

  • the job of prepositions
  • using prepositions to avoid common writing problems

The first five parts of speech we studied–nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs–are the foundation of a sentence.  They tell us who is doing what.

Her small dog is barking loudly.

But sentences are more complex than simply who and what.  We also want to know where and when.

Her small dog ran into the street.

Her dog barks at 7 a.m.

What Is a Preposition?

A preposition is a word that shows the position of something or someone in space and time. If you look at the word “preposition,” you’ll see the word “position.” A preposition tells us where and when.

A prepositional phrase is a common component of English sentences. A prepositional phrase is a group of words that begins with a preposition, ends with a noun or pronoun, and does not include the verb or subject. In the sentences above, “into the street” is a prepositional phrase that shows where the dog ran.  “at 7 a.m.” is a prepositional phrase that tells us when.  Notice that both begin with prepositions (“into,” “at”), end with nouns (“street,” “7 a.m.”), and neither includes the subject or verb of the sentence.

Here is another example:

The study rooms (on the first floor) (of the library) are full (in the morning).

Each group of words enclosed in parentheses is a prepositional phrase: they all start with a preposition (“on,” “of,” “in”), end with a noun or pronoun (“floor,” “library,” “morning”), and don’t include the verb (“are”) or subject (“rooms”). The job of these prepositional phrases is to tell you where the study rooms are and when they are full.

(Note: When working with English grammar, we mark prepositional phrases by enclosing them in parentheses.)

Prepositions Show Position in Space

Here are some common prepositions that show positions in space:

to across over against with
at through inside under within
in beyond between beneath without
on among above around below
by near behind past from

Imagine a plane flying across a sky. We can change the plane’s position in space by changing the prepositions: above the clouds, below the clouds, within the clouds, between the clouds, past the clouds, behind the clouds.

Another way to remember prepositions about space is with this graphic. Think of where the caterpillar is in relation to the apple.


What is a preposition?
This image reproduced with permission. © Elizabeth O’Brien, English-Grammar-Revolution.com

Prepositions Show Position in Time

Here is a list of common prepositions that show position in time:

at before since
by past throughout
in until from
for during between
after within around

Imagine that plane is about to land. We can change its position in time by changing prepositions: at 3 p.m., after 3 p.m., before 3 p.m., around 3 p.m.

Exceptions: Of, As, Like

The words “of,” “as,” and “like” are also prepositions, but they don’t fit neatly into either the space or time category. However, they are very common. For example:

book of essays, note of apology, type of bicycle, give as an example, testify as an expert, think like a computer, disappear like magic

Just remember them: of, as, like.

Exercise 1

In your notebook, copy the following sentences. Skip a line between sentences so you have room to add information.

Find all the prepositional phrases and enclose them in parentheses.

Then, above each word in the prepositional phrase, identify the word’s part of speech by writing “n” for noun, “pro” for pronoun, “prep” for preposition, “adj” for adjective, and “adv” for adverb. (Remember: there are no verbs in prepositional phrases.)

  1. Meera was deeply interested in marine biology.
  2. I just watched the season finale of my favorite show.
  3. Jordan won the race, and I am happy for him.
  4. The lawyer appeared before the court on Monday.
  5. Chloe wore a comfortable blue tunic for the party.

Why Bother with Prepositional Phrases?

Locating prepositional phrases will help you find subjects and verbs–especially in a long sentence. How? Subjects and verbs never appear in a prepositional phrase. For example:

In the rainy season, one of our windows leaked at all four corners.

If we the prepositional phrases from the rest of the sentence, it is easy to see the verb and subject:

(In the rainy season), one (of our windows) leaked (at all four corners).

After we have removed the prepositional phrases, all we have left are the words “one” and “leaked.” “one” is the pronoun subject and “leaked” is the verb.

This can help writers see and correct things like subject/verb agreement problems, sentence fragments, and other common grammatical errors. (More about subjects and verbs in Ch. 4.)

Graphic Materials

To review prepositions, watch this video:


  • Prepositions show the placement in space or time of other elements in a sentence.
  • Identifying prepositional phrases can help writers avoid other grammatical errors.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.