Grammar Tips: Prepositions

16 Feb

One important component of improving your writing involves understanding the different elements that make up a sentence and how to use them appropriately and effectively. We’ve already discussed adjectives, conjunctions, nouns, verbs, and adverbs, and pronouns, but what about prepositions? What is a preposition? Well, let’s find out!

A preposition describes a relationship between other words in a sentence. Typically, prepositions are used as locators in time and place, and they are nearly always combined other words to form prepositional phrases. While prepositional phrases can consist of a variety of different words, they tend to have the same construction: a preposition + a determiner + an adjective (or two!) + a noun or pronoun. Whew, that sounds complicated! Let’s break it down.

First, there are many different prepositions, including words like:

  • About, Above, Across, After, Against, Around, At
  • Before, Behind, Below, Beneath, Beside, Besides, Between, Beyond, By
  • Down, During, Except, For, From, In, Inside, Into
  • Like, Near, Of, Off, On, Out, Outside, Over
  • Since, Through, Throughout, Till, To, Toward
  • Under, Until, Up, Upon, With, Without
  • According to, Because of, By way of
  • In addition to, In front of, In place of, In regard to, In spite of
  • On account of, Out of

As we can see, all of these words are used to establish a relationship between the words in a sentence, and many of them directly establish time or place. Now, let’s see an example:

Students can sit before the desk (or in front of the desk). The professor can sit on the desk (when they’re being informal) or behind the desk, and then their feet are under the desk or beneath the desk. They can stand beside the desk (meaning next to the desk), between the desk and the students, or even on the desk (if they are really strange). They might bump into the desk, or try to walk through the desk, or knock stuff off of the desk. Passing their hands over the desk, they may look across the desk or speak of the desk or concerning the desk as if there was nothing else like the desk. Because they think of nothing except the desk, sometimes students wonder about the desk, what’s in the desk, what they paid for the desk, and if they could live without the desk. Students can walk toward the desk, to the desk, around the desk, by the desk, and even past the desk while the professor sits at the desk or leans against the desk.

In our above example, all of the bolded words are prepositions. While some prepositions do things other than locate space and time, nearly all of them modify in some way. It is also possible for a preposition to act as a noun – During class is not the time to gossip with friends – but this is seldom appropriate in academic or formal writing. While it is debatable whether we can end a sentence with a preposition, we do want to avoid unnecessary prepositions. Remember, our preposition should further describe the relationship between the words in our sentence.

Are you confident in your preposition skills? Take this quiz to practice selecting the correct preposition for the sentence, or try this quiz to test your skills at identifying the preposition in the sentence. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to send us an email or schedule an appointment in the Writing Center!

© Alyssa Ryan


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