In the sentence above, we have a person looking at something. We know the thing is a window. Still, we need to know more about the relationship between the words “looked” and “window.” A prepositional phrase offers a way to connect a noun or pronoun to a verb, adjective, or adverb. How did he look? Did he look over the window, under the window, around the window, or after the window? No, in this case, he looked through the window.
A prepositional phrase has two main parts. First, you’ll notice a connecting word that describes time, location, or direction. Sometimes, the words are short—such as “at” and “to”—and sometimes they’re long—like “between” and “aside from.” This connector is called a preposition. In the example sentence at the beginning of this article, the preposition is “through.” When you spot one of these connecting words (or series of words), you know that you’re dealing with a prepositional phrase.
Still, a prepositional phrase wouldn’t be complete without an object. The object of the preposition will sometimes have more than one word. For instance, in the phrase “into the scary woods,” the word “into” acts as a preposition and the word “woods” acts as the object. “The” is an article modifying the woods. “Scary” is an adjective modifying the woods. Of course, a prepositional phrase can also include longer phrases with adverbs and verbs. Here’s what you’ll never see in a prepositional phrase—a subject. A prepositional phrase can’t stand alone as an independent clause because it never contains a subject.
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When you know how to identify a preposition, you’ll be able to work with prepositional phrases more easily. Here are some of the common prepositions you should memorize or, at the very least, be able to identify. Notice that most prepositions deal with time, location, or direction.
As far as
As well as
By means of
In accordance with
In addition to
In case of
In front of
In lieu of
In place of
In spite of
On account of
On behalf of
On top of
With a view to
Some people say that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. Although Merriam-Webster argues that’s an old fashioned rule, their blog acknowledges that people do get up-in-arms over sentences that end with prepositions. People especially dislike sentences ending with “of,” “to,” or “through.”
Example 1: He’s the one I thought of.
Example 2: He’s the one of whom I thought.
Although most grammar and usage guides would take no issue with Example 1, Merriam-Webster explains, “[The originators of this rule] were likely motivated by a desire to make English grammar more in line with Latin, a language in which sentences syntactically cannot end in prepositions.” So, if you want to avoid all potential criticism, you may decide to avoid using “of,” “to,” or “through” as the terminal word in a sentence.
Types of Prepositional Phrases
A prepositional phrase functions one of two ways. Either it functions as an adjective, by modifying a noun, or it functions as an adverb. When a prepositional phrase functions as an adverb, it can modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.
Below, we’ve included examples of prepositional phrases. For each prepositional phrase, we’ve identified what it modifies, the preposition, and the nominal (the word or group of words acting as the object of a preposition).
His grade for the test was a B-.
The house without the porch belonged to Sally.
Her skin disappeared underneath the makeup.
He typed slowly with one finger.
Tricky Prepositional Phrases
While most prepositional phrases are straightforward, just like the ones you see in the examples above, you may come across a few confusing situations. For instance, there are times when a prepositional phrase functions as a noun clause. Even though this is relatively uncommon, you could come across it. You can spot these prepositional phrases because you can substitute the entire prepositional phrase with a noun.
Under the house is not a good place to hide.
In this example, you can replace the prepositional phrase with a noun:
The basement is not a good place to hide.
Similarly, you may have a word that looks like a verb at first glance. Then, when you look closer, you’ll realize that the -ing word actually functions as a noun. That’s called a gerund; actually, gerunds are commonly used as the objects of prepositional phrases.
Here’s an example:
He knew the answer without thinking.
In the sentence above, the word “thinking” looks a lot like a verb, but it’s actually a gerund and functions as a noun. You could easily replace the word “thinking” with “a thought.”
He knew the answer without a thought.
1) If you want to avoid criticism in formal writing, which sentence would you choose?
A. That’s the monster I’m most afraid of.
B. That’s the monster of which I’m most afraid.
C. That’s the monster of him I’m most afraid.
D. That’s the monster I’m most afraid.
2) Upon reflection, he realized he knew the answer. The prepositional phrase “upon reflection” functions as an adverb in the previous sentence because…
A. It modifies the word “realized.”
B. It modifies the word “knew.”
C. It modifies the word “he.”
D. It modifies the word “answer.”
3) He darted through the street with his pants on fire. In the previous sentence, which of the following words is not the object of a preposition?
4) Which of the following words is not a preposition?
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.