The words at, in, of, on and to are examples of prepositions. A word such as a noun, pronoun or gerund following a preposition is said to be the object of the preposition. As pointed out previously, a personal pronoun following a preposition must be in the objective case.
A phrase beginning with a preposition can be referred to as a prepositional phrase. The prepositional phrases in the following examples are underlined.
e.g. He owns the house on the corner.
We are waiting for her.
She has read many books about flying.
In the first example, the noun corner is the object of the preposition on. In the second example, the personal pronoun her is the object of the preposition for. It can be seen that the personal pronoun her is in the objective case. In the third example, the gerund flying is the object of the preposition about.
A preposition serves to connect its object with the rest of a sentence. In doing so, a preposition indicates the relationship of the idea expressed in the prepositional phrase to the ideas expressed In the rest of the sentence.
For instance in the sentence He owns the house on the corner, the preposition on indicates that the words the corner express the location of the house referred to in the rest of the sentence. Similarly, in the sentence We are waiting for her, the preposition for indicates that the word her expresses the reason for the action of waiting referred to in the rest of the sentence.
Although there are fewer than one hundred English prepositions, although prepositions do not take endings, and although the structure of most prepositional phrases is simple, the use of English prepositions is very complex. The reasons for this are that most prepositions have more than one meaning, many prepositions can also be used as adverbs, prepositions are used in hundreds of idioms, many adjectives, nouns, and verbs must usually be followed by certain prepositions, and there are hundreds of phrasal verbs formed from combinations of verbs with adverbs and prepositions.
It should also be noted that the use of prepositions varies somewhat among the different dialects of English. For instance, as illustrated in the following example, there are some differences between British and North American English in the use of prepositions.
e.g. British Usage: There is a fence about the garden.
American Usage: There is a fence around the garden.
The discussion below emphasizes the North American usage of English prepositions.
1. The meanings of prepositions
The table below gives the most usual meanings of English prepositions. Each meaning is illustrated by an example.
1. On the subject of: This is a story about elephants.
2. Approximately: He is about ten years old.
1. Higher than; over: The plane flew above the clouds.
2. Earlier on a page: There is a heading above each diagram.
1. From one side to the other: We walked across the field.
2. On the other side of: There is a store across the street.
1. Later in time: after ten o'clock; after lunch
2. Later in a series: Q comes after P in the alphabet.
3. In pursuit of: The dog ran after the cat.
1. In opposition to: Theft is against the law.
2. Touching; supported by: I leaned my bicycle against the wall.
1. Following the length of: We walked along the road.
1. Within a group: The money was shared among three people.
Note: In formal English, among is usually used only when referring to more than two persons or things. In contrast, between is used when referring to two persons or things.
1. Circling something: We walked around the block.
2. Surrounding: There is a fence around the garden.
3. In different parts of: I looked around the house for the keys.
4. In the other direction: We turned around and went back home.
5. Approximately: He is around six feet tall.
1. A specific location: at
2. A point in time: at 5 o'clock; at Christmas
3. A condition: at peace; at war; at rest
4. An activity: at work; at school; at play
5. Towards: Look at someone; wave at someone
Note: When referring to a specific location or to a point in time, at is usually used. When referring to a certain street or a certain day, on is usually used. When referring to a location as an area, or when referring to a unit of time longer than a day, in is usually used.
e.g. at Christmas; on Christmas day; in the Christmas holidays
1. Earlier in time: before two o'clock; before Christmas
2. Earlier in a series: S comes before T in the alphabet.
1. At the back of: The little girl hid behind her mother.
2. Late: I am behind in my work.
3. Cause; origin: Who was behind that idea?
1. Lower than; under: below freezing; below sea level
2. Later on a page: Footnotes are provided below the text.
1. Lower than; below: beneath the earth
1. Next to; at the side of: I sit beside her in class.
1. Also; as well as: We study other languages besides English.
Note the differing meanings of beside and besides. Beside is usually used with reference to a physical location.
1. An intermediate location:
2. An intermediate time: between Christmas and New Year's Day
3. Intermediate in a series: B comes between A and C in the alphabet.
4. An intermediate amount: between five and ten people
5. Within a group of two: The money was shared between two people.
1. Farther than: The mountains lie beyond the horizon.
2. Further than; exceeding: That was beyond my expectations.
1. Except: I have read all but the last chapter.
Note: But is used more often as a conjunction than as a preposition.
1. Near: a house by the sea
2. Past: He waved as he drove by the house.
3. Not later than: Try to finish the work by next week.
4. In units of: cheaper by the dozen; sold by weight
5. Through the means of: travel by plane; written by him
Note: By is often used in combination with verbs in the Passive Voice.
1. Connected with; about: He studies everything concerning trees.
1. In spite of: We walked downtown despite the rain.
1. To a lower position: The ball rolled down the hill.
2. Further along: He lives down the street.
1. Throughout a period: She works during the day.
2. Sometime within a period: An accident occurred during the night.
1. Not including: I have visited everyone except him.
1. Duration of time: We walked for two hours.
2. Distance: I walked for five kilometers.
3. Purpose: I bought this jacket for you.
4. In the direction of: She left for
5. In favor of: We are for the proposal.
6. Considering: The boy is clever for his age.
1. Place of origin: We left from
2. Start of a period of time: from now on; from yesterday until today
3. Start of a range: From 20 to 30 people were present.
4. Cause: He suffers from nervousness.
5. Source: I first heard the story from you.
1. Place thought of as an area: in
2. Within a location: in the room; in the building
3. Large units of time: That happened in March, in 1992.
4. Within a certain time: I will return in an hour.
5. By means of: write in pencil; speak in English
6. Condition: in doubt; in a hurry; in secret
7. A member of: He is in the orchestra; in the navy
8. Wearing: the boy in the blue shirt
9. With reference to: lacking in ideas; rich in oil
1. Within: They are inside the house.
1. To the inside of: We stepped into the room.
2. Change of condition: The boy changed into a man.
1. Resembling: That looks like him.
2. Appearing possible: It looks like rain.
3. Be in a suitable mood for: I feel like going swimming.
1. Less: Three minus two equals one.
1. Close to: near the school; near the ocean
1. Location: east of here; the middle of the road
2. Possession: a friend of mine; the sound of music
3. Part of a group: one of us; a member of the team
4. Measurement: a cup of milk; two meters of snow
1. Not on; away from: Please keep off the grass.
2. At some distance from: There are islands off the coast.
1. Touching the surface of: on the table; on the wall
2. A certain day: That happened on Sunday, on the 6th of June.
3. A certain street: on South Street
4. About: a book on engineering
5. A state or condition: on strike; on fire; on holiday
6. By means of: live on a pension; shown on television
1. To a position on: The child climbed onto the table.
1. Facing: The library is opposite the fire station.
1. To the outside of: She went out of the room.
2. From among: We won two games out of three.
3. Motive: We spoke to them out of politeness.
4. Material: The bridge is made out of steel.
5. Beyond: out of control; out of danger
1. On the outer side of: outside the house
2. Beyond the limits of: outside my experience
1. Above; higher than: There are cupboards over the sink.
2. Covering: We spread an extra blanket over the bed.
3. Across: I jumped over a puddle.
4. More than: It cost over ten dollars; it took over an hour
5. During: I saw him several times over the past week.
6. By means of: We made plans over the telephone.
1. Up to and beyond: I walked past the house.
2. After (in time): It was past 2 o'clock; half past two
3. Beyond: past belief
1. For each: 60 kilometers per hour; price per liter
1. With the addition of: Six plus four equals ten.
1. From a specific time in the past: I had been waiting since two o'clock.
2. From a past time until now: I have been waiting here since noon.
Note: Because of its meaning, the preposition since is usually used in combination with a perfect tense. It should be noted that the preposition for can also be used with a perfect tense. However, when used with reference to time, for is usually followed by a phrase referring to a period of time; whereas since is usually followed by a phrase referring to a specific time.
e.g. I have known him for six months.
I have known him since January.
In the first example, for is followed by six months, which refers to a period of time. In the second example, since is followed by January, which refers to a specific time.
1. Across; from end to end of: the main road through town
2. For the whole of a period: I slept through the night.
3. By means of: Skill improves through practice.
1. In every part of: throughout the world
2. For the whole of a period: throughout the winter
Note: Till can be used instead of until. However, at the beginning of a sentence, until is usually used.
1. In the direction of: Turn to the right.
2. Destination: I am going to
3. Until: from Monday to Friday; five minutes to ten
4. Compared with: They prefer hockey to soccer.
5. With indirect object: Please give it to me.
6. As part of infinitive: I like to ski; he wants to help.
7. In order to: We went to the store to buy soap.
Toward (or Towards)
1. In the direction of: We walked toward the center of town.
2. Near; just before (time): It rained towards evening.
1. Beneath: under the desk; under the trees
2. Less than: Under 100 people were present.
3. In circumstances of: under repair; under way; under discussion
1. Below, under: underneath the carpet
1. Up to a certain time: She will stay until Friday; until 5 p.m.
Note: On and upon have similar meanings. Upon may be used in certain expressions, as in once upon a time, and following certain verbs, as in to rely upon someone.
1. To a higher place: We went up the stairs.
2. In a higher place: She lives up the hill.
1. As far as: up to now; I have read up to page 100.
2. Depending on: The decision is up to you.
3. As good as; ready for: His work is up to standard.
1. Against (sports, legal): The next game is
1. By way of: He went to
1. Accompanying: He came with her; I have my keys with me.
2. Having; containing: Here is a book with a map of the island.
3. By means of; using: I repaired the shoes with glue.
4. Manner: with pleasure; with ease; with difficulty
5. Because of: We were paralyzed with fear.
1. Inside of: within twenty minutes; within one kilometer
1. Not having: Do not leave without your coat; without money
Exercises 1 and 2.
Paying attention to the meanings of the prepositions, fill in the blanks with the most appropriate prepositions chosen from those given in brackets. For example:
She made a speech _____ the future of the school. (about, around)
She made a speech about the future of the school.
D comes _______ C and E in the alphabet. (between, beyond)
D comes between C and E in the alphabet.
1. This train travels from
2. We stood at the back ______ the theater. (of, on)
3. She went to
4. The store is open daily ________ Monday to Friday. (for, from)
5. I took my hat ________ the table. (of, off)
6. He looks ________ his brother. (despite, like)
7. The children ran ________ the school. (of, out of)
8. He opened the box ________ a screwdriver. (at, with)
9. I will work _________ five o'clock. (until, up)
10. We walked __________ the restaurant. (despite, past)
11. At three o'clock we reached the top _______ the hill. (of, off)
12. You have delivered all of the papers __________ this one. (between, but)
13. The bank is _________ the school. (opposite, out of)
14. __________ the danger, he decided to climb the mountain. (despite, except)
15. The treasure was hidden __________ the earth. (under, up to)
16. A comes __________ B in the alphabet. (before, behind)
17. I went to work ____________ my umbrella. (out of, without)
18. When it is heated, water changes _________ steam. (in, into)
19. Nocturnal animals usually sleep __________ the day. (during, underneath)
20. The squirrel ran _________ the wall. (along, among)
2. Paying attention to the uses of the prepositions among, at, beside, besides, between, for, in, on and since, fill in the blanks with the correct prepositions chosen from those given in brackets. For example:
They live __
The meeting will take place __ Tuesday. (at, on) The meeting will take place on Tuesday.
We have been traveling ___ several days. (for, since) We have been traveling for several days.
She has been working _____ six o'clock this morning. (for, since)
She has been working since six o'clock this morning.
1. He lives ______
2. We will be gone ________ two days. (for, since)
3. Tom and his friend will divide the money ___________ themselves. (among, between)
4. They will be returning ______ November. (in, on)
5. I have known him ________ three years. (for, since)
6. Many foods ____________ milk contain calcium. (beside, besides)
7. I will arrive ______ six o'clock. (at, in)
8. He has been gone __________ Friday. (for, since)
9. The store is located ______
10. She is leaving ______ five minutes. (at, in)
11. Bridget, Leslie and Sarah will discuss the matter _________ themselves. (among, between)
12. I have known her __________ last year. (for, since)
13. We expect them ______ Wednesday. (in, on)
14. The cat was sitting ___________ the stove. (beside, besides)
15. The play begins ______ seven thirty. (at, on)
16. We waited __________ fifteen minutes. (for, since)
18. There are many possibilities __________ the ones I have mentioned. (beside, besides)
19. She will call us ______ half an hour. (at, in)
20. His birthday is ______ the 8th of January. (in, on)
2. Prepositions used in idioms
Below are examples of idioms consisting of prepositional phrases. The following selection of idioms emphasizes those used in North American English. The meaning of each idiom is indicated after the colon.
not at all: not in any way
at all times: always
at any rate: whatever happens
keep someone at arm's length: avoid becoming closely involved with someone
at close quarters: very near
at one's disposal: to be used as one wishes
at a distance: not near
at fault: causing something wrong
at first: at the beginning
see at a glance: see immediately
at hand: near; readily available
at last: finally, after some delay
at a loss: uncertain what to do or say
at the mercy of: without defense against
at the moment: now
at once: immediately
at present: now
at rest: not moving
at risk: threatened by danger or loss
at short notice: with little warning
at stake: to be won or lost
at a stretch: continuously