I’ve been doing some work on prepositions lately and it struck me that for such insignificant little words, they have quite a powerful role to play in English language and seem to be a common bête noire at all levels of learning.
I looked up a definition of prepositions, it seems they are a group of words that show relationships between nouns, pronouns, or gerunds and other words in a sentence. They show place, time, direction and other attributes in relation to these words. The good news is that they never change their form. The bad is – it’s not that simple! They can be free or bound (they can depend on other words). They can be complex too, they come along in pairs or sometimes threes and fours for good measure and take on new meanings. Occasionally they are in disguise – they might look like prepositions but in actual fact they are adverbs or adjectives! It is often when they hook up with verbs that they are at their most demonic! They form phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and horror, phrasal-prepositional verbs!! Is it any wonder that these enfant terribles of the English language learning world put fear into our hearts
So, I thought in this post I’d try to break down the uses, give some examples and see if we can’t engender a little respect for these feared yet very hard-working and versatile little words!
Prepositions pure and simple 🙂
Using prepositions in their simple form is fairly straightforward.
Place – relationships are bound by position – on, in, under, above etc..
Some to note are:
over and under (rather than above and below)
- used when something is covering something else – the spoon fell under the table, the fog drifted over the village
- for horizontal movement – the birds flew over the trees
- to show more, less, fewer than – we made just under/over £3,000!
above and below
- are used for rank or level – Sergeant is below the rank of captain.
in, at, on
- these are specific – I’ll meet you at the cinema (probably outside) or in the cinema (inside). It’s on the corner (the outside of the corner). It’s in the corner (surrounded, probably a Square or in a room).
- In with cities, countries etc.- in France but on with streets – I’m on North Street, at with named places – at Oxford Circus.
- At when people gather together – at a party, at the conference.
towards and up to
- towards shows the direction of the movement, up to usually indicates a purpose – I went up to her to get directions.
Time – relationships are bound by duration or a point in time
- indicate the start and end time – I’ll be here from Monday to Friday. (note American English often uses just through) I’ll be here Monday through Friday. The American usage tells us that Friday is included in the stay the British version is less clear.
Bound prepositions – those with no meaning in life! 😦
Bound prepositions are dependent upon certain words (or the words ‘take’ a certain preposition). These prepositions have no independent meaning as meaning is conveyed by the word/s to which they are bound.
It is important to learn these and commit them to memory as you come across them.
Some general rules exist:
- Prepositions can follow verbs nouns or adjectives – rely on, success in, keen on etc… (here is a list)
- These prepositions always take an object – rely on somebody, success in his exams, keen on riding horses
- Where the object is a verb – it is often in the …ing form – They accused him of lying.
- With adjectives describing emotion then ing form or infinitive with to is possible. They were angry at seeing animals mistreated. They were angry to see animals mistreated.
verb + preposition
- These multi-word combinations are called prepositional verbs.
- Here are a few examples – complain to, rely on, confide in, part with, look into etc..
- Another verb + preposition combination is the phrasal verb – these are different because the meaning is changed completely with addition of the preposition, which is not the case with prepositional verbs.
- Here are some examples – wear off, break down, look after, put off, own up etc…
- A third multi-word verb using a preposition as a particle is a phrasal-prepositional verb (verb + adverb + preposition)
- Here are some examples – look up to, hand over to, get out of, put up with, get back to, come out of etc….
noun + preposition
where a noun and a verb are related both will usually take the same preposition
- They succeeded in getting the contract
- Their success in getting the contract was the turning point in the life of the company.
sometimes a noun takes a preposition where the related verb does not
- She had always had a fear of spiders.
- She had feared spiders from childhood.
adjective + preposition
as above, where an adjective is related to a verb or noun taking a specific preposition then the adjective will also take this preposition
- They were very anxious about the merger.
- We could sense their anxiety about the merger.
adjectives describing feelings and opinions often have bound/dependent prepositions
- I’m not keen on the blue one.
- She’s quite nervous about tomorrow.
Prepositions with a complex! 😦
Complex prepositions are always free prepositions but need support. Although their meaning combines with that of the other word/s they rely on these other words, which go in front.
Here are a few examples:
- for: as for, except for, save for
- from: away from, aside from, apart from
- to: close to, due to, on to, next to
- with: along with, together with
- of: ahead of, out of, irrespective of
- on: depending on
Some have such low self-esteem that they require a larger support team!
- for: in exchange for, in return for
- of: by means of, in case of, in favour of, on top of
- to: in addition to, in contrast to, on relation to
- with: in contact with, in comparison with, in line with
In this last group they are hardly visible amidst their entourage !
- for the sake of
- with the exception of
- in the light of
- on the grounds that
Stranded prepositions (who’d be a preposition!) 😦
Our final example in this woeful tale of prepositions is the stranded preposition. It stands alone at the end of a sentence or clause.
- In questions – Who are you applying to work with?
- In the passive – What percentage can the cost be reduced by?
- Relative clauses – Yesterday I saw that woman (that/who) you introduced me to!
- Infinitive clauses – She managed to see the film that it is impossible to get tickets for!
Don’t forget to check your grammar book for more detailed information!
Prepositions strike back! 🙂
Despite their sorry state prepositions can form interesting and very common idioms which you might want to consider adding to your vocabulary.
Useful idioms formed from prepositions
Sometimes we simply pop a couple of prepositions together
Here are a couple of examples – in for, in on, up to (more examples)
Other prepositions hook up with nouns to form handy little phrases (see here)
Here are some examples – on the go, on the case, on the house
Prepositions certainly do need some respect and it is worth spending time to study and learn how to use them well – it is one of those niggling areas of grammar which, if mastered, can make a big difference to your language performance!
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