logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Prepositions of time

clock

Before tackling this section, you should work through (or at least read) the guide to prepositions of place.  Many of the concepts are analogous so this guide will not redefine some key ideas.  It should be comprehensible, however, even if you don't do that.


many clocks

How many prepositions of time are there?

Fortunately, not as many as there are prepositions of place and many are common to both areas (often with similar functions).  Here's an unclassified reference list of 33 of them:

about
above
after
ago
around
at
before
between
by
close to
due to
during
for
from
in
near to
next
on
outside
over
past
prior to
since
through
throughout
till
to
towards
under
until
up to
with
within
If you would like that list as a PDF document, click here.

do

What do time prepositions do?

Time prepositions usually perform one of two functions:

  1. An adjunct as in We left the house at six o'clock
  2. A post-modifier as in a visitor from the future

Just as we discovered with prepositions of place, words which are sometimes used as time prepositions can be found masquerading as other parts of speech.  So, for example, we get:
    He waited outside
(adverb use)
vs.
    He couldn't do the work outside four hours
(adjunct prepositional use)
or
    The kitchen was tiled throughout
(adverb use)
vs.
    He stayed throughout the concert
(adjunct prepositional use)
or
    He missed the meeting at six o'clock (prepositional post-modification of meeting)
vs.
    The bus came at last (adverbial use)
or even
    I'll come since you ask
(subordinating conjunction)
vs.
    I have been here since June
(preposition).
We need to be alert, therefore, look beyond the form of the word and decide what it is actually doing.  For a little more, see the guide to prepositions of place.
For your entertainment, this sliding between word class is sometimes known as syntactic homonymy.  That is not a term with which to trouble most learners but it is a seriously important issue when defining word class.  Telling learners, for example, that outside is always a preposition is misleading and will lead to errors of overextension such as
    *Please only smoke outside here.


analyse

How do we analyse prepositions of time?

This is, also fortunately, somewhat simpler than analysing prepositions of place but there are a few surprises in store.

cosmos

Dimensions

Prepositions of place refer to three possible dimensions (point, line or surface and area or volume).  Time, as any cosmologist will tell you, is much simpler and we are dealing with only two dimensions:

  1. A point in time (or an event perceived as a point in time)
  2. A period of time

It's actually quite simple to identify which prepositions do which if you are a native or native-like speaker of English but prepositions do not translate across languages neatly (when they translate at all) and learners will encounter trouble remembering which ones do which.
Which of the following refer to a point in time and which to a period of time?
about, after, ago, at, before, by, during, for, from, throughout, under, until
Click on the eye open to reveal the answers when you have answered that.

Learners need to know what dimensions of time prepositions relate to or they will not easily be able to use them.  Of course.

Two notes:

  1. during, for and since need careful handling:
    1. during precedes an event that is understood to be of some duration so we can have during the film, during his stay but not usually *during the second, *during the moment etc.  This preposition does not precede a numerically stated period of time so we don't have *during three years, *during two hours etc. but we can have during the 20th century, during his marriage etc.  The word is always followed by a noun phrase.
      The preposition throughout works similarly, by the way.
    2. since refers back to a point in time, not a period of time.  It is also, in British English, nearly always used with a perfect aspect tense form.
    3. for is the preposition of choice when setting out a precise period of time: for three years, for three minutes, for a nanosecond etc.  The duration of the time is immaterial (compare during).
    4. When used before time nouns such as the summer, the month etc., both for and during can be used: She stayed during the summer, She stayed for the summer.  However, for implies throughout but during does not.
  2. An event may be perceived as a point in time or taking a long period of time so we see above, I finished before dinner which implies that the speaker sees the meal as a point in time (probably its beginning) but we can also have He talked during dinner where the meal is perceived as a long-duration event.  Unless otherwise stated, speakers usually refer to long events as points of time and mean the beginning or the end of the event:
    He has been drinking since (the end of) lunch
    He has lived here since (the end of) the war
    She arrived before (the beginning of) the celebrations
    They left after (the end of) the wedding
clock

at, in, on

We saw in the guide to prepositions of time that these prepositions work with three different dimensions.  An analogous situation applies to time prepositions.

at
is mostly used for points in time as registered by clocks: at 6, at the striking of the hour, at midnight etc.
it is also used idiomatically for certain holiday seasons (at Christmas, at Thanksgiving etc.) and in two common irregular expressions, at night and at the weekend.  But note that US English, more logically, allows on the weekend.
on
is used for days (analogous with line or surface with prepositions of place) so we get on Thursday, on 1st June, on the preceding day etc.
in
precedes periods of time (analogous to the area or volume concept with prepositions of place) so we get in the summer, in the evening, in the 20th century, in his life, in 2010, in the years that followed etc.

before, after, since, until/till

The trick with these four is to note that they are also subordinating conjunctions carrying the same meanings.  As far as meaning goes, there is, then, no serious problem but how they colligate (i.e., co-occur with certain structures) is worth some analysis.

  before after since until/till
as preposition he was a clerk before the war he arrived after 10 o'clock I've been worried since seeing him leave the house we'll wait until/till tomorrow
as subordinating conjunction he was a clerk before he joined the army he arrived after the clock had struck 10 I've been worried since it got dark we'll wait until the time is right

Notes:

as prepositions these words are usually followed by
a noun phrase (the war, last night)
an -ing clause with no subject (seeing him leave the house)
as subordination conjunctions the words are usually followed by
a proper clause (it got dark, the time is right)

by

This preposition occurs most frequently occur with two constructions:

  1. A simple noun phrase or time phrase (by the end, by midnight, by 6 o'clock etc.)
  2. A perfect aspect tense form (by the time we had finished, by the time they have finished etc.)
clock

other time prepositions

Most other time prepositions can be understood by analogy to the same place prepositions.  It is not a large conceptual leap from the items on the left to those on the right, for example:

Place Time
It's between the house and the garage Come between 6 and 7
Walk up to the end of the street I'll stay up to the end of the film
It's inside the box I finished inside two hours
She's walking towards us It's getting towards midnight
He walked past the door He worked past 6
He's in the next house I'll see you next Monday
He slept throughout my presentation He slept throughout the day
and so on.
dropping

dropping the preposition

Unlike place prepositions, which are very rarely omitted, time prepositions are frequently elided.  This is somewhat complicated and uses are idiomatic.
In the following, there are two tasks: a) to decide if the example sentences are acceptable and b) what the rule is.
Click on the eye open to reveal some comments when you have done the two tasks.

Examples Task 1: Acceptable? Yes / No | Task 2: and the rule is ...
a) This year, we are staying at Margate
b) In this year we are staying at Margate
c) She works harder these days
d) She works harder on these days
e) I'll tell him next time we meet
f) I'll tell him at the next time we meet
eye open
a) Yes
b) No
c) Yes
d) No
e) Yes
f) No
All the correct examples contain a deictic (or pointing term), this, these, next.  Other examples are that, last, those.
Rule 1:
When we use deictic words, the preposition must be omitted.
a) She had written it the January before last
b) She had written it in the January before last
c) The parcel arrived the day before yesterday
d) The parcel arrived on the day before yesterday
e) We'll meet again on Monday week
f) We'll meet again Monday week
eye open
a) Yes
b) Yes
c) Yes
d) Yes
e) Yes
f) Yes
These examples also contain deictic phrases (before, last, week) but the difference is that they refer to a time more than one remove from the present.
Rule 2:
Rule 1 is optional if the reference is to a time more than one remove from the present.
(In AmE, the preposition is almost always omitted.)
a) I saw him yesterday
b) I saw him on yesterday
c) I'll go tomorrow
d) I'll go on tomorrow
e) She came yesterday evening
f) She came in yesterday evening
eye open
a) Yes
b) No
c) Yes
d) No
e) Yes
f) No
Rule 3:
If the time noun includes the meaning of last, next or this (yesterday, tomorrow, today), we must exclude the preposition.
a) Some Sundays, he's in his garden
b) On some Sundays he's in his garden
c) Every summer she goes back to her mother's
d) On every summer she goes back to her mother's
e) He comes for dinner most evenings
f) He comes for dinner in most evenings
eye open
a) Yes
b) No
c) Yes
d) No
e) Yes
f) No
Rule 4:
If the time expression is quantified (with something like every, some etc.), the preposition must be omitted.
Hint: think about formality here.
a) We met the day of my graduation
b) We met on the day of my graduation
c) We lived in London three months
d) We lived in London for three months
e) Sundays, we play tennis
f) On Sundays, we play tennis
eye open
a) Yes
b) Yes
c) Yes
d) Yes
e) Yes
f) Yes
Rule 5:
This is a rule of thumb.  When we can omit the preposition, doing so makes the sentence less formal.
AmE does this more than BrE but there is a clear tendency for BrE to adopt the practice.

 


classroom

Putting the analysis into practice in the classroom 

Explaining and exemplifying

Using this kind of analysis, it becomes a little easier to explain to a learner what a time preposition 'means'.

Example 1: if you were asked to explain during that week, throughout that week, for that week, since that week, what would you say?  Click eye open when you have decided.

Example 2: if you were asked how at, on and in differ, how would you reply?  Click eye open when you have decided.


Unless you are feeling adventurous, now is probably not the time to introduce anomalies such as at night, at the weekend etc.  Get the basics clear first.

Using graphics

Many people respond well to graphical representations of the relationships set by time prepositions and they are easy to invent off the cuff.  The main issue, point vs. duration, can be represented like this.
Here are some cut-out-and-keep diagrams:

during
throughout 
Prepositions and their relation to a point in time can be represented like this:
before until at after
or this:
noon 


Related guides
time adjuncts for an overview of how else we signal when something happened in English
prepositions of place for a similar guide to another set of prepositions
prepositional phrases for a guide to prepositions and their complements
7 meanings of over for a short video presentation of the meanings of a troublesome preposition
elementary prepositions for a lesson for elementary learners with a short video to help them understand place and movement


Main reference:
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman