Prepositions (e.g., on, in, at, and by) usually appear as part of a prepositional phrase. Their main function is to allow the noun or pronoun in the phrase to modify another word in the sentence. Prepositional phrases always begin with a preposition and end with a noun, pronoun, or other word group that functions as the object of the preposition (e.g., in time, on the table).
A preposition can be one word (e.g., about, despite, on) or a word group (e.g., according to, as well as, in spite of). Place prepositional phrases as close as possible to the words they modify. Adjectival prepositional phrases usually appear right after the noun or pronoun they modify and answer questions like Which one? and What kind of? Adverbial phrases can appear anywhere in a sentence and answer questions like When? How? and Why?
The purpose of prepositions is to express positioning for the nouns and pronouns in your sentence. The use of prepositions can be complex, making it difficult to pick the right one for a sentence. Here are some of the most common prepositions:
Certain verbs are followed by certain prepositions: He was listening to music. We rely on each other. Checking a verb in the dictionary will tell you which prepositions will follow it. Similarly, certain nouns and adjectives are followed by certain prepositions: He has an interest in anthropology. She puts emphasis on the importance of rules. Again, checking nouns and adjectives in the dictionary will tell you which prepositions follow it.
Adverbial and adjectival prepositional phrases
Prepositional phrases serve as adjectives or adverbs within sentences. Prepositions functioning like adverbs can go anywhere in a sentence, depending on the emphasis you want. Prepositions that function like adjectives go right after the noun they modify.
Would you put your health records on the Web?
In this sentence, on the Web is an adverbial prepositional phrase.
My cellphone works in Asia and Europe.
In this sentence, in Asia and Europe is an adverbial prepositional phrase.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity describes the motion of particles at almost the speed of light.
In this sentence, at almost the speed of light is an adjectival prepositional phrase.
Anna and Otto wrote a guide to the first year of parenthood.
In this sentence, to the first year is an adjectival prepositional phrase – and so is of parenthood.
Prepositions describing relationships in time
The prepositions at, on, and in are conventionally used for certain time relations.
TIME WITH at
- exact time: at 3 P.M., at midnight
- meal times: at dinner, at breakfast
- parts of the day, when no article is used for the part of the day: at night, at daybreak, at noon (compare: in the morning, in the evening)
- age: At 21 you are legally considered a full adult.
TIME WITH on
- days of the week: on Monday, on Tuesdays
- parts of the day, when the day is named: on Friday evening, on Saturday morning
- dates: on July 28th, on September 22nd
TIMES WITH in
- seasons: in spring, in summer
- months: in April, in November, in the third month
- years: in 2056, in 1956
- durations: in ten minutes, in four days, in a month
Prepositions describing relationships in space
at, by, in, on
show an object’s settled position or position after it has moved
I arrived at the Baghdad airport.
An old power plant sat unused by the school.
In this town most people work at the call centre.
They carry their children on their backs.
to, onto, into
show the direction of movement toward a point, surface, or area
They brought their babies to the clinic.
She placed the crown onto his head.
Walking into his office is like walking into a zoo.
by, along, through
show the direction of movement next to or past a point, surface, or area
We drove by the ocean.
From their castles along the Rhein River, German princes could regulate river traffic.
Omero Catan, a salesperson from New York, drove the first car through the Lincoln Tunnel after waiting in line for 30 hours.
from, out of
show the direction of movement away from a point, surface, or area
The joropo is a waltzy musical form from Venezuela.
After the airplane crashed, she had to walk out of the jungle.
- John is a successful man. He works ____ Wall Street.
- University convocations take place ___ May and ___ October.
- I missed the ending of the movie because my DVD player broke ______ the last scene.
- I drink a lot of coffee because there is a Tim Horton’s _______ from my house.
- I like all types of vegetables ________ for celery.
- Classes were cancelled yesterday __________ the weather.
- Have you ever been to Wolfville? It is _____ the Annapolis Valley.
- It is very hard to take a math exam _________ a calculator.
- Nigel will be up all night. He has to keep writing ______ his essay is finished.
- We are meeting ________ 3:00 ________ Robie Street.
- She has trouble sleeping because the man in the apartment _______ her plays the drums.
- We wanted to be outside so we went for a walk in the park __________ the cold.
- Jennifer was late when she reached the meeting. It was further ______ of town than she expected.
- We decided to spend Saturday night at home with a movie _________ of going out.
- You cannot see him in the picture because somebody is standing _________ him.
Answers: 1) on; 2) in and in; 3) during; 4) across; 5) except; 6) because of/ due to; 7) in; 8)without; 9) until; 10) at and on; 11) above; 12) in spite of; 13) out; 14) instead of; 15) in front of