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The Bridge: Prepositional phrases

Sheltering from the rain

Prepositions are a closed-class set of words.  That means that the number of them is fixed and it is vanishingly rare in any language to invent or introduce new ones.
Some do, of course, fall out of fashion so modern English, for example, rarely makes use of prepositions such as betwixt or astraddle.
There are well over 100 prepositions in English and, because prepositional use is so variable across even those languages which use them, they cause a good deal of trouble.  (A list of over 200 is available here if you would like it as a reference.)

It's quite important to recognise that prepositions are not always single words.  In these examples, the prepositions are in black:
    She went in spite of the weather
    He took the cake instead of the biscuits
    We managed thanks to his help
    They walked away from the house
    We did it in keeping with the company's policies

They are not always simply out, in, of, by, at etc., either.

Here, as it should be in teaching, the focus in on prepositional phrases because these carry meaning.  As function words, prepositions on their own are essentially meaningless.  For this reason, the rest of this short guide will talk about prepositional phrases, not just prepositions.  There are two definitions of a prepositional phrase:
    A phrase consisting of a preposition and its complement
    A phrase consisting of a preposition and its object

The first definition is preferred on this site but the second is quite sustainable.


What you already know

On most initial training courses, the following is the breakdown that prepositions are usually given:

  1. Prepositions act to connect verbs to places or times such as, e.g.:
        He waited on the platform
        She arrived
    at half past eight
  2. Prepositional phrases are formed by the preposition and its noun complement or object as in, e.g.:
        She helped herself to the money
        They arrived on Monday

And that's usually all there is time for.

In fact, prepositions are an interesting category of words in their own right and deserve a bit more treatment.  Because they are so unpredictable and because they rarely translate across languages, teachers need to be able to provide precise and clear explanations as well as being able to plan lessons which focus on various aspects of the area.
This is especially important for learners whose first languages don't use prepositions at all and connect using postpositions or by adding suffixes to verbs and in other imaginative ways.


Blurred edges

One of the first problems inexperienced (and even, alas, quite experienced) teachers encounter is actually defining a preposition.

? To check what you know, identify whether the words in black in these examples are prepositions or not.
If they aren't, what are they?
At the end, click on the eye to reveal some answers.
  1. He passed the book up to me
  2. He passed the book up to me
  3. She turned down the opportunity
  4. She turned down the lane
  5. They arrived after lunch
  6. They arrived after the meeting had begun
  7. He worked as a waiter
  8. He worked overtime as he needed the money
  9. She walked through the park
  10. Are you through with that?
  11. The outside is green
  12. I waited outside the pub
  13. The outside of the house is green
  14. I stood outside

Click here when you are ready: eye

Briefly, prepositions take complements (or objects if you prefer) but adverbs do not (although they may form part of a phrasal verb with an object).  Conjunctions link clauses and nouns are, just, well, nouns.


Prepositional complements

aiming at the target  

The most frequent forms of prepositional complements are as in the examples we have given so far: place nouns / phrases or time nouns / phrases.  It is worth considering what else they can be.  Briefly, complements can be:


What do prepositional phrases do?

Prepositional phrases perform a number of useful functions in the language, including:

? Try a matching test to make sure you have this.

If you need to know more about what prepositional phrases do, consult the guides linked at the end.


Dependent prepositions

Some verbs in English collocate very strongly with certain prepositions.  So strongly in fact that they are classed as verbs with dependent prepositions or prepositional verbs, which are a subset of multi-word verbs (to which there is a long guide in the in-service section, linked below).
Here, we will not analyse these in any depth but we do need to distinguish between a verb modified by a prepositional phrase, a prepositional verb and a phrasal verb briefly, because the area causes great confusion.

  1. A verb modified by a prepositional phrase can be identified by two main tests:
    1. Can we move the prepositional phrase?
      In other words, can we have, for example:
          He looked over the wall
          It was over the wall that he looked
      If we can, then this is a verb modified by a prepositional phrase, as it is here.
    2. Can we replace the preposition without changing the meaning of the verb?
      For example, can we have:
          He looked under the wall
      as well as:
          He looked over the wall
      and will the verb meaning remain the same?
      If we can, and it does, this is a prepositional phrase adverbial modifying the verb.
  2. A phrasal verb depends for its meaning on a combination of an adverb and the verb.  The simple tests are:
    1. Can we change the adverb without changing the meaning?
      So can we say:
          She put off the party
          She put down the party
      without changing the meaning of put?
      We can't.  The verb put off means postpone and put down means criticise.  So this is a phrasal verb and the words off and down are adverbs not prepositions.
    2. Can we separate the verb from the particle?
      So can we say:
          She broke the fight up
          She broke it up
          She broke up the fight
      Yes, we can, so it's a phrasal not a prepositional verb.
      We cannot, for example, say:
          *He looked the game at
      so we know that look at is not a phrasal verb, it's a prepositional verb.
  3. A prepositional verb has other characteristics:
    1. The preposition is tied to the verb so we have, for example:
          He complained about the service
      but not
          *He complained from the service
    2. It is not separated by the object so we cannot have:
          *He complained the service about
          *He complained it about

There are some other tests and for those, you need to consult the guide to multi-word verbs, linked below.

Prepositional verbs are quite common, not only in English, and are probably best taught and learned as single lexemes because they are, by definition, inseparable.
There is, however, one important complication: transitivity.

  1. Some prepositional verbs can be used transitively and intransitively.  In the former case, they take the preposition.  We can have, therefore:
        He commented
        He commented on the idea
  2. Other prepositional verbs can only be used transitively, so while we can have:
        It consisted of six parts
    we cannot have:
        *It consisted.

An alternative analysis worth considering for its simplicity is that all such verbs are actually intransitive because none takes a direct object without an intervening preposition.  Thus, for example:
    She abstained from voting
is directly equivalent to the more familiar
    She arrived at the hotel
because we can also have simply:
    She abstained
    She arrived.

For more consideration of prepositional verbs, see the in-service guide to multi-word verbs or the essentials of multi-word verbs, listed below.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
preposition essentials prepositional phrases
essentials of multi-word verbs multi-word verbs