A preposition is a part of speech, a member of a class of words found in many human languages. It’s a word that clarifies the relationship between an element in the sentence and a noun or pronoun that comes after the preposition.
Back when I was in elementary school, the teacher taught us that the preposition is the word you’d use to describe your relationship to a cloud. Are you over the cloud, under the cloud, in the cloud, or around the cloud? Now, that trick doesn’t work for every preposition, but it does give you some idea of how prepositions function to show the relationship between the object of a preposition (in this case, the cloud) and another element of the sentence (in this case, you).
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that contains both the preposition and its object. In the following sentences, we’ve bolded the prepositional phrases:
I walked across the bridge last December.
She went swimming under the starry sky.
After the party, he took a nap.
What’s the Definition of a Preposition?
Merriam-Webster defines preposition as, “a function word that typically combines with a noun phrase to form a phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication.”
The Cambridge English Dictionary provides the following example in their definition of preposition:
“In the sentences ‘We jumped in the lake,’ and ‘She drove slowly down the track,’ ‘in’ and ‘down’ are prepositions.”
What makes things slightly more complicated is the fact that most prepositions also function as other parts of speech. For this reason, you need to pay close attention to context. The placement of a word will often signify that it’s functioning as a preposition.
How Did We Get Prepositions in English?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, we started using the word “preposition”, spelled “preposicioun”, in the late 14th century. The word derived from the Latin praepositio, from the verb praepositus or praeponere, or “put before.” The word emerged around the same time that prepositions were really catching on in English. Prior to that time, we used quite a few inflection endings to signify prepositional relationships. In other words, the preposition relationship was often baked into the object of a preposition in Old English grammar.
A number of languages attach a prepositional prefix or suffix to the lexical word, or content word. Think of the words “hither,” “wither,” and “thither,” meaning “toward here”, “toward where”, and “toward there”. Similarly, you have the prepositions built into the words “hence,” “whence,” and “thence,” meaning “from here”, “from where”, and “from there”.
Rather than saying hence, you could use prepositions of time, like “after,” “since,” “from,” “past,” or “till,” to express a temporal relationship. Modern English favors separate prepositions over inflectional endings.
How Is a Preposition Used?
Prepositions usually connect substantives, or lexical words, such as nouns or pronouns, to other parts of speech.
You can use a prepositional phrase to modify a verb, adjective, noun, etc.:
Verb: She traveled beyond the intersection.
Adjective: That was lucky for her.
Noun: They left the car by the house.
In the first example, the prepositional phrase modifies the verb “traveled,” giving the reader more information about how she traveled. In the second example, the prepositional phrase tells us more about the adjective “lucky.” In the last example, “by the house” tells us more about the relationship between the object of the preposition, which is the house, and the noun it modifies, car.
List of Prepositions
There are two main types of prepositions: simple and complex. Simple prepositions are only a single word, and complex prepositions are two words or more.
Examples of complex prepositions include “because of” and “away from”.
Below, we’ve provided a full list of prepositions with both simple and complex options. This list doesn’t contain every preposition in English, but it does include many different types of prepositions.
Some of the words below can also be used as other parts of speech. For example, “about” can be a preposition, adjective, or adverb. Be sure to look at the context before you assume that a word functions as a preposition.
- according to
- ahead of
- à la
- apart from
- away from
- because of
- close to
- contrary to
- depending on
- due to
- regardless of
Ending a Sentence with a Preposition
In formal writing, such as essays and reports, some people hate to see the preposition come after the final relative clause. So, they might take the sentence, “That was the goal he worked toward,” and flip it so that there’s no terminal preposition: “That was the goal toward which he worked.”
Some grammar fanatics feel very strongly about this rule, while others prefer the former syntactic construction. Ultimately, you can make up your own mind about ending a sentence with a preposition. If you choose to use a preposition at the end of a sentence, be prepared for some people to take offense. Then again, some people feel that inverting the sentence sounds pretentious and overly formal.
In spite of the lively debate, the English language has many examples of the final preposition throughout the history of literature. Although many people feel strongly about their preferred form of sentence structure, most modern grammar guides insist that both options are functionally equivalent.
Prepositions in Context
“Some caring deputies were able to lift the concrete slab to help free the reptile, who has since returned safely to the lake he calls home.”
—Channel 10 Tampa Bay, “Sarasota deputies rescue alligator found trapped in Venice storm drain”
“Three people were murdered and four were injured after gunfire rang out in the dark party over the sound of loud music.”
—Port City Daily, “Dark party, at least 40 attendees, over 20 shots fired: WPD shares details about Kidder Street shooting”
“By late on Friday, Argentina had confirmed 80,411 deaths among its 45 million citizens from the disease, with a total 3.9 million cases.”
—Reuters, “With over 80,000 dead, Argentines struggle under weight of COVID-19”
The alleged suspect was zip-tied and passengers aboard the aircraft credited members of the crew for saving the plane from the alleged attempted hijacking.
—Fox 11 Los Angeles, “Man allegedly tries to hijack airplane out of Los Angeles; FBI investigating”
“The find, on a huge tract of pristine land maintained by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has scientists scrambling to piece together bone fragments that they believe tell a story of climate change from five to 10m years ago.”
—The Guardian, “How a ranger stumbled upon one of the largest fossil finds in California history”
“But then I took the GRE and bombed, testing below average in all sections.”
—Science, “Seeing beyond a test”
“New Rochelle police said they apprehended Thompson outside of the bank ‘without further incident.'”
—NBC News, “New York librarian accused of robbing bank”