logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Prepositional phrases


There is a simpler introduction to prepositions on the initial plus training pages.  You may like to review that before going on.



A prepositional phrase has two parts: the preposition and the preposition complement.  There are five kinds of prepositional complement.  Can you identify them in the following examples?  The preposition is in black and the complement is in this colourClick here for the answers and some other examples when you have tried this.

  1. He drives past my house most mornings
  2. From what you have told me, it is very strange.
  3. Before opening the letter, he took a deep breath.
  4. From now to eternity.
  5. He moved over to under the light.

We cannot have a that-clause or an infinitive clause as the complement of a preposition so we can't say, e.g.
    *I understand from that he told me
    *He came in by to break open the window
Other languages do things differently and that accounts for a good deal of error.  Simply telling learners this little fact can be most helpful.


A different way to analyse prepositional phrases

Some functional approaches to grammar analysis take a slightly different view of the prepositional phrase.

The analysis is that most phrases can be described as an expanded version of the Head of the phrase.
For example, in this sentence:
    The cautious old man spoke slight hesitantly at the meeting
the noun phrase, The cautious old man, can be analysed as the Head (man) being expanded by the pre-modifying adjectives and the determiner.
In the same way, the verb phrase, spoke slightly hesitantly, can be analysed as the Head (the verb spoke) expanded by the post-modifying adverbs.
However, the prepositional phrase cannot be analysed in exactly the same way because the phrase at the meeting is not a simple expansion of the Head (at) but may be better considered as the preposition plus its object (the meeting).
In this way, prepositional phrases function more like small clauses than phrases per se.

We do not follow that analysis here, staying with the word complement to refer to the object of the preposition but it is worth explaining, albeit briefly.


Blurring at the edges: borderline cases of word class

Some words can only function as prepositions and present no serious comprehension or use issues.  They include:
against, among, at, bar, barring, beside, despite, during, except, following, from, including, into, like, minus, of, per, plus, to, toward(s), upon, via and with.

Other words with dual or triple class membership can be problematic.  The first group includes most prepositions not in the list above because simply removing the complement results in an adverbial use.  It may be argued that the elision of the complement leaves the prepositional nature of the word intact.  Compare, for example:
    They met outside the pub
which is prepositional and
    We can't smoke inside
which is adverbial, with
    He was still walking up the mountain while they were already walking down
where the first use is prepositional but in which the second use is either prepositional (with an implied complement of it or the mountain) or adverbial (with no complement).
We have, therefore:

  1. Words which can function both as prepositions and adverbs, for example:
    • They came aboard (adverb)
      They aren't aboard the boat (preposition)
    • She drove past (adverb)
      She drove past my house (preposition)
  2. Words which can function as prepositions, adverbs or conjunctions:
    • They had met before (adverb)
      They spoke before the meeting (preposition)
      They spoke before the chairman opened the meeting (conjunction)
    • I haven't seen him since (adverb)
      She has waited since the summer (preposition)
      I'll tell you, since you ask (conjunction)
  3. Words which can function as prepositions or conjunctions:
    • I bought it for $400 (preposition)
      You can't speak yet for questions are only allowed at the end (conjunction)
    • She dressed as Cleopatra (preposition)
      She asked as she needed to know the answer (conjunction)
  4. A few words which span other word classes:
    • He walked through the park (preposition)
      I'm not through yet (adjective)
    • The opposite meaning (adjective)
      Leave it on the opposite side (adjective)
      I placed it opposite the mirror (preposition)
    • It was an inside job (adjective)
      I left it inside (adverb)
      The inside is painted red (noun)
      It's inside the house (preposition)

Some prepositions lie on the borderline between prepositions proper and conjunctions or adverbs and in these cases, the distinctions become blurred.

in that
looks like a preposition phrase and, what's more, like an exception because we have in followed by a that-clause as in, for example:
    She has an advantage, in that she speaks both languages
It is, in fact, a rather unusual conjunction meaning because or for the following reason and is better analysed that way.
but / bar
but is usually analysed as a conjunction and that is its function in, for example:
    I called but you were out
However, the word also has prepositional characteristics and can be followed by an infinitive as in, for example:
    He did nothing but work
and it can be followed by a noun phrase or pronoun quite normally as a preposition in, for example:
    Everyone came but the Smiths
    Nobody wants to go but her
We saw above that prepositions are followed by pronouns in the object case and here the distinction becomes even more blurred because
    Nobody but her knew the truth

is acceptable and prepositional although
    Nobody but she knew the truth
is also acceptable but not prepositional because the pronoun is in the subject case.  Compare:
    Nobody knew the truth but she did
The preposition bar follows the same patterns and also means except for as in, for example:
    It's all over bar the shouting
    All the people bar Mike and John were satisfied
functions as a conjunction in, for example:
    He spends more than he can afford
    It's more expensive than I hoped

but can also be prepositional as in, for example:
    She is taller than me
    It's more than 5 miles from here
The prepositional use allows an infinitive complement, with and without to as in, for example:
    It is better to call by than to 'phone
    I'd prefer to stay than go
also functions as a conjunction in for example:
    I wanted to come except I had no money
    It doesn't hurt except when I'm very tired

in which case it means roughly but, and in common with but can also be used prepositionally in, for example:
    Everyone one came except Julian
and, like but, can be followed by an infinitive
    She does little except sleep
as well as
is an adverb (an additive adverbial adjunct to be precise) in many circumstances as in, for example:
    It snowed a little and rained as well
and can also function as what is sometimes called a quasi-coordinating conjunction in, for example:
    He writes novels as well as contributing to the newspaper
but the phrase is also prepositional in, for example:
    I'll paint the door as well as the window frames
is an adverb in for example:
    I don't want to go swimming.  Instead, I'll stay in and read.
but combined with of, the word is a preposition as in
    I'll have the fish instead of the meat course
this word is frequently a predicative-only adjective in, e.g.:
    It is (well) worth visiting the museum
    It is not worth my time
but at other times is functioning as a preposition as in, for example:
    It's not worth $400
union jack us

British (BrE) and American (AmE) usage

There are some differences between British and American usage in this area.  Here's the summary:

at vs. on the weekend
AmE speakers prefer on the weekend, BrE speakers prefer at the weekend
from ... to / until vs. through
to express the beginning and end of a period of time, AmE speakers prefer through as in, e.g.:
    The shop is open Monday through Saturday
but BrE speakers prefer either from ... to or from ...until / till as in:
    The shop is open from Monday to Saturday
    The shop is open from Monday until Saturday
in vs. for ages
After a negative, AmE speakers prefer in + the time period:
    I haven't seen the movie in years
BrE speakers prefer for + the time period:
    I haven't see the film for years
in vs. on the street
AmE users prefer on:
    They live on Washington Street
BrE users prefer in:
    They live in Nelson Street


Prepositions are always followed by their complements – right?

Click here when you have an answer.


What do prepositional phrases do?

Here are 6 example sentences.  Decide what each prepositional phrase is doing and then click on the eye open for some comments.

She was walking through the park
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is an adjunct (i.e., it's an adverbial which is integral to the clause).  It is probably the most common prepositional use.
To her astonishment, the shop replaced the shoes immediately
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is a disjunct (i.e., it refers to the whole clause which follows and is not integral to the clause itself).
In addition, I'd like to ask for a small pay rise
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is a conjunct, linking the previous sentence with this one.
The man in the garden is his father-in-law
eye open
This is sometimes called a reduced relative clause but, in fact, it can more simply be seen as a post-modifier of the noun man.
It all depends on the weather
eye open
The verb here is a prepositional verb (depend on) and the prepositional phrase is its complement.
I am angry at your suggestion
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is the complement of an adjective.
The guide to adjectives, linked at the end, contains more detail.

Note: reference to things like adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts in the following may be ignored if they make no sense to you.  For more in the area, see the guide to adverbials.


Prepositional phrases as adjuncts

It is often averred that prepositions in English are wholly unpredictable and obscure.  While it is true that it is difficult to say what all prepositions 'mean', there are some useful patterns we can use to teach the area.
Can you classify these?  As before, click on the eye open for an answer.

Because of the rain, we stayed in
For fear of the consequences, he told nobody
On account of the difficulty, he decided not to bother
eye open
All these contain the notion of reason or motive.  Note that of is the most common preposition in the phrase although out of (in, e.g., out of a sense of justice) is a possible but rarer form.
He only works for the money
They all ran for the ball at the same time
She did it for the good of the village
They queued for a bus
He took the train to London
He gave it to me
eye open
Prepositional phrases with for often express the notions of purpose or destination.  If you can re-phrase the sentence using in order to plus a verb, then the preposition is usually for.
Prepositional phrases with to express a similar notion but here it is either the target or the recipient.  Target may also be signalled by at as in, e.g., He threw it at me.
Note the difference between at (a target) and to (a recipient) in:
He threw the ball at me / Screamed at me
He threw the ball to me / Screamed to me
She shouted with great passion
She spoke like a teacher
He worked in an orderly way

eye open
Prepositional phrases with with, like and in (nearly always + adjective + manner or way) express the notion of in the manner of.
Note the difference between like (in the manner of) and as (in the role of) in, e.g., She dressed as Marie Antoinette for the party vs. She dressed like Marie Antoinette.)
We went by tram
He left by the back door
They came by car
eye open
Prepositional phrases which express means nearly always contain by.  Such phrases are not always used for transport but that is frequent and a helpful conceptual tag (providing you don't get too involved in the irregular on foot).
The by + participle form, e.g., By breaking the lock, he managed to escape, is common to describe means.
She opened her talk with an anecdote
They broke the door down with an axe
He wrote with a special pen
eye open
Prepositional phrases which express the instrument rather than the means nearly always contain with.  It is important to distinguish this and the last category as confusion is often the source of errors such as *They came with the bus, *He wrote by a pencil.
Both by and with can be the agent of a passive but that with is usually confined to inanimate objects.  For example, The fire was put out by the neighbours vs. The fire was put out with water.
It is possible, and quite common, to combine by and with in the same clause:
He broke the lock by hitting it with an axe.
Note, too, that by is sometimes replaced by at in the passive sense: She was astonished at / by his rudeness.
He came from London
She spoke from the audience
eye open
The converse of phrases with to and for is often a phrase with from denoting source or origin.


Prepositional phrases as disjuncts


and conjuncts

Here's another table to treat in the same way.
In spite of the rain, we went out
Despite the consequences, he carried on
Notwithstanding the difficulty, he decided to do it
eye open
The most common of these is, of course, in spite of but the other two mean the same although they are more formal.  They all carry the notion of concession.  (Conjunctions like although can be used in a similar way but these examples are prepositional phrases, not conjunctions.)
With regard to the money,
As for the children,
With reference to your letter,
Regarding your question,
eye open
There are various levels of formality here but the notion is the same for all – reference to something.  These examples are disjuncts (hence the separating commas) but they can be used to post-modify in, e.g., What answer did you get regarding your question?
It's all over bar the shouting
Everyone is here except the teacher
Everyone but the teacher is here
Except for the teacher, everyone is here
Apart from the teacher, everyone is here
But for the teacher, I couldn't have learned it
eye open
These all carry the notion of exception.
Prepositional phrases with bar, except and but are post-modifiers here.
Except for and apart from are both disjuncts.  The other examples here are actually adjuncts.
Notice that but for is slightly different.  It carries the notion of conditionality (If it hadn't been for ...)
Notice, too, that but is not a conjunction in this use.
To my amazement, he agreed
To her horror, the road was blocked
To their joy, the boss conceded
eye open
To introduces many expressions of reaction.
These are all attitudinal disjuncts and are often more formal ways of saying, e.g., amazingly, horrifyingly, happily etc.


Prepositional phrases as post-modifiers

This is another large category but, in fact, only three prepositions are common in these phrases.  They all express the notion of having an attribute.  Some examples:

  1. The woman with red hair
  2. A man of honour
  3. A girl without humour

Prepositional phrases with without and with are frequently a form of relative clause.  Compare A man with a grudge with A man who has a grudge or A woman without any money and A woman who has no money.
You can't do that with phrases with of (and they are less common).  The of-phrases are normally only used with abstract properties so we can have A woman of great determination but not *A woman of beautiful hands etc.

Many other types of prepositional phrases can act as post-modifiers, often stating where or when something is.  For example:

  1. The house on the corner
  2. The meeting on Monday
  3. The girl in the queue

There are some prepositions which appear to be verbs because they end in -ing, but aren't.  They include:
concerning, considering, excepting, excluding, failing, following, including, notwithstanding, pending, regarding, respecting and saving.
They are troublesome because they occur in constructions which look like reduced relative clauses but for which there is no corresponding -ing form in the relative clause or for which no relative clause at all can be constructed with a parallel meaning.  For example:

The confusion arises because formulations using non-finite clauses to post-modify the noun such as

can all be re-phrased as relative clauses although the -ing form of these verbs is not always available:

For more, see the links at the end.


constituents of phrases

We need to be slightly careful in deciding what exactly a prepositional phrase is modifying or our hearers can misinterpret what we mean.
For example, the sentence:
    Jane spoke to the man behind the bar
can be understood in two ways, like this:
In the first sentence, the verb is being post-modified and tells us where she spoke so the separated verb phrase is:
    spoke to ... behind the bar
In the second sentence, the noun is being post-modified and the object noun phrase is:
    the man behind the bar
When the first sense is intended, speakers will insert a slight pause between the man and behind the bar, making two tone units each with a stressed syllable: the man and behind the bar.
When the second sense is intended, the man behind the bar will constitute a single tone unit with one stressed syllable.  (For more, see the links at the end.)


Prepositional phrases as complements of verbs and adjectives

Another similar task:

He told me about his holiday
He lectured me on the difference
He wrote a book on grammar

eye open
These both tell us the subject matter.  The phrases with on are more formal and can't be used with informal verbs such as chat or argue.  The safest rule is that about can always be used.
The desk is made of / out of mahogany
The rice is cooked with cinnamon
eye open
The notion here is material but there's a slight difference.  Phrases using with express the fact that something is an ingredient.  Phrases with out of and of express the sole material(s) used.
The examples here are of post-modifying a verb phrase.
When these phrases post-modify a noun phrase, of is the preferred option, e.g., a man of steel, a huge wall of stone.  See under post-modifiers, above.
Not bad for a man!
It's large for a village cottage
I'm awful at learning languages
It's pricey for a short flight
eye open
These all carry the notion of gradability measured against some kind of standard.
Prepositional phrases with for imply that the adjective is unusual in some way.
Prepositional phrases with at usually post-modify gradable adjectives (he's good at tennis) but can be used with ungradable or so-called 'extreme' adjectives, as in the example with awful at.


Modifying prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases can themselves be modified with adverbial phrases.  The modification always precedes the phrase.
Prepositional phrases of time and place are most commonly (i.e., not solely) the ones we can modify.
The modifiers are adverbials and serve to amplify or tone down the phrase.  They are, in other words, intensifiers.
For example:

  1. His explanation went completely over my head.
  2. They were very nearly on time.
  3. The bullet went clean through the window.
  4. It's almost directly opposite the station.
  5. The meeting started shortly after 6 o'clock.
  6. The man spoke purely in his own interests.
  7. That's a comment very much out of order here.
  8. We looked all over the town for a replacement.
  9. My house is right behind the school.
  10. Wholly in my opinion, this is the wrong way to proceed.

There is a slightly grey area here.
Prepositional phrases are, as we see above, normally only pre-modified.  However, in sentences such as:
    The science of black holes is over my head entirely.
it appears that the prepositional phrase over my head is being post-modified by the intensifying adverb entirely.
The argument here is that it isn't only the prepositional phrase that is being modified but the whole preceding clause that is being modified by the adverb.


The position of prepositional phrases

Syntactically, where prepositional phrases come in a clause depends to a large extent on the function they are performing.
They can come at the beginning, in the middle or at the end (called initial, medial and final positions in the trade).
Here's how it usually works:

  1. Prepositional phrases modifying nouns
    1. These normally post-modify and follow the noun phrase immediately as in, for example:
          The man in the corner
      The cars on the road
          The bus at ten past six
    2. When there are two or more noun phrases, the prepositional phrases modify them in the same way; i.e., the phrase modifies the immediately preceding noun.  This means that people will understand them that way so, for example:
          The man walking the dog with red hair
      means the dog had red hair but
          The man with red hair walking the dog
      means the man had red hair.
    3. The position of the prepositional phrase can lead, as we saw, to ambiguity.  For example:
          He used the computer at his office
      can mean either
          While he was in his office, he used the computer
          He used the computer which was in his office
      Because the prepositional phrase so strictly follows the noun phrase, the normally interpretation with be the second one.
  2. Prepositional phrases as adverbial adjuncts
    1. When the phrase is modifying the verb and integral to the clause, it usually comes immediately after the verb phrase.  That is its commonly unmarked (i.e., having no special emphasis) position.  Like this:
          She saw him at the hotel
      They met on Monday
    2. To deal with the possible ambiguity issue, the prepositional phrase is often moved to the initial or final position as we saw above.  Compare, for example:
          His friends at that time were working
      which could be a phrase modifying the friends (i.e., they were friends then but not now) or an adjunct modifying the verb phrase were working (i.e., telling us when they were working)
          At that time, his friends were working
          His friends were working at that time
      both of which can only be interpreted as prepositional phrases modifying the verb (i.e., adverbial adjuncts) and refer to the time the friends were working.
    3. When they are marked in some way, however, the phrase is often elevated to the initial position.  This is common in written English because the phrase cannot be marked by stress or intonation as it can in spoken texts, so word ordering is the only option.  In writing, the phrase is separated from the rest of the clause by a comma; in speaking, by a slight pause after the phrase.  E.g.:
          At the hotel, she saw him (i.e., nowhere else)
          On Monday, they met (i.e., not on any other day)
    4. When the prepositional phrase is an adjunct very closely connected to the verb as in, e.g., a verb of movement and its destination or a prepositional verb, the prepositional phrase is rarely moved to the initial position unless some heavily marked meaning is intended:
          Mary marked the house on the map
          On the map Mary marked the house
          They jumped over the wall
          Over the wall they jumped
    5. Placing a comma or a pause in spoken language, after the prepositional phrase produces a slightly different meaning:
          Over the wall they jumped
      emphasises what was jumped over
          Over the wall, they jumped
      means that they were already over the wall and then jumped.
    6. The medial position is also possible for adverbial adjunct prepositional phrases but there is a need to be careful to avoid ambiguity and the phrases usually have to be separated by commas or pauses in speaking.  For example:
      1. After the subject:
            Dave, at the moment, is too busy to do it
      2. After the verb phrase but before its complement:
            Dave is too busy, at the moment, to do it
      3. After the auxiliary verb or operator
            Dave is, at the moment, too busy to do it
      4. Between the object and its complement:
            Dave did it, on the whole, rather badly
      5. Finally:
            Dave is too busy to do it at the moment
  3. Prepositional phrases as conjuncts
    1. Because the function of a conjunct is to provide a connection between clauses, the preferred position is the initial one for the second clause or sentence.  We get, for example:
          He refused to come with us.  Without him, we had a lot more fun
          The last pair played very well.  But for that, we would have lost the match
    2. Prepositional phrases as disjuncts
    3. Disjunct prepositional phrases, expressing the speaker / writer's attitude or a viewpoint, normally come in the initial position but can take the final position.  For example:
          To my disappointment, the weather turned cold and wet
          The weather turned cold and wet, to my disappointment
          From my point of view
      , that's a poor idea
          That's a poor idea, from my point of view
          In the study of language
      , the word 'register' is used in a special sense
          The word 'register' is used in a special sense, in the study of language
  4. Multiple prepositional phrases
    1. When a clause contains more than one adverbial adjunct prepositional phrase, they are usually ordered in relation to how closely connected they are to the verb phrase.  So, for example, we get:
          She spoke to him in French after dinner
      rather than
          She spoke to him after dinner in French
      because the language she spoke in is more closely connected to the verb than the time she did the speaking, or
          He walked across the park in the rain
      rather than
          He walked in the rain across the park
      because where he walked is more closely connected to the verb than the weather conditions.
    2. An alternative positioning is to use one prepositional phrase initially and keep the most closely connected phrase in the final position following the verb phrase as in:
          After dinner, she spoke to him in French
          In the rain, he walked across the park

a note on prepositional time phrases

The general rule is that we use:

There are exceptions, notably at night (reserving in for other parts of the day) and at the weekend.
However, if we use referencing (i.e., deictic) words like next, last, this, after next, before last etc., we can drop the preposition.  We get, therefore, for example

I'm seeing her (the) Monday after next
We met (the) January before last
I'll come next week
I saw him last Thursday
We married that month / year etc.

We also do this when we quantify the noun in some way: e.g.

I take some Mondays off
I work every afternoon
I have a meeting most weeks etc.

Informally, we can also drop the preposition on days of the week: e.g., I'll see you Monday.


Other languages

No analysis for teaching purposes like this one would be complete without some consideration of how other languages address the issue of saying where and when an event took place or a state existed.  The term to use here is adposition rather than speaking loosely of prepositions as we shall discover.

English, as we saw above prefers prepositions inasmuch as the Head of a phrase is followed by its complement rather than preceded by it.  That is why they are called pre-positions, of course.
There are two other ways to order the data in languages around the world and many opt for one or other.  Here's what is meant:
In English we have a phrase such as on the table.  This will translate into a variety of languages in the same ordering so we have, e.g.:

Swedish på bordet French sur la table German auf dem Tisch
Spanish en la mesa Bulgarian на масата Greek πάνω στο τραπέζι
Polish na stole Russian на столе Swahili juu ya meza
Scots Gaelic air a 'bhòrd Albanian mbi tavolinë Igbo ke okpokoro

and so on.  In all these languages, and hundreds more, the adpositional phrase is left headed.  That is to say that the head of the phrase, what we can call in English and these languages the preposition, lies to the left.
Most South-East Asian languages, such as Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Khmer are also left headed.

That is not the only way to order the elements and many languages are right headed so the adposition lies to the right with the noun phrase complement or object preceding it.  For example:

Basque mahai gainean Turkish masanın üstünde Somali miiska dushiisa
Estonian laua peal Japanese テーブルの上に Finnish pöydällä 
Kasakh үстелдің үстінде Korean 책상 위에 Kyrgyz столдун үстүндө

all of which translate, approximately, as the table on.
Other languages which are right headed include: Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Kannada, Gujarati (and nearly all other Indian languages), many African languages, almost all Austronesian languages and many North and South American languages.
There are few, quite limited examples of postpositions in English including, expressions such as the whole day through.  Other expressions in which it appears that English is using postpositions are usually better analysed as either adverbs as in
    from that day on(wards)
or as elided complements as in
    the church opposite (me, you, us etc.)

A third way of ordering things is one used by a smaller number of languages, albeit with very large numbers of speakers.  These languages use what is known as circumpositions, splitting the adposition in two with one element preceding the noun phrase and one following it.  Most Chinese languages do this although postpositions are also common and prepositions occur, too, so the languages are often classified as having no canonical or default ordering of the elements.
Circumfixing adpositions is also common in Pashto and other Iranian languages.

Here's a summary:

A rare form of adpositioning is one used by some Austronesian languages in which the particle is placed within the noun phrase itself.  These are, rather obviously, referred to as inpositions.

The implications for learners of non-left-headed-language backgrounds are obvious.

There's a test on much of this.

Related guides
prepositions of place for more on a specific group of prepositions
prepositions of time for more on a specific group of prepositions
sentence stress for more on how phrases are stressed
constituents of phrases for more on ambiguity and phrase constituents
modification of nouns for more on modification of noun phrases
modification: essentials the general guide in the initial plus section
post-modification of noun phrases for more on how prepositional and other phrases function to modify or define nouns
pre-modification of noun phrases
adverbials for more on adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
adjectives this guide contains much more detail about how prepositional phrases act as complements to adjectives
introduction to prepositions for a simpler guide to the area

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Dryer, MS and Haspelmath, M (Eds.), 2013, The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Available online at http://wals.info
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman