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Concourse 2

Prepositions: the essentials


You will already know a little about this area if you have followed the guide to word class.  You learnt there that prepositions are members of a closed-class set (meaning that there are a finite number in the language).



Prepositions in English usually come before a noun phrase and tell us the relationship between two things.  For example, in
    The man was standing on the street
the preposition tells us the relationship between stand and street.
Sometimes a preposition can come before a verb -ing clause in e.g., by using this website.

They are difficult to learn for a number of reasons.

  1. They do not readily translate between languages so, for example, we have the English
        She took it off the table
    being in German
        She took it from the table
    and so on.
    It is also the case that a preposition in one language may be translated a number of ways in English depending on the context and vice versa.
  2. Some languages do not use prepositions at all, preferring to change verbs or to insert postpositions such as
        She walked the road along.
    (English sometimes does this, too, in things like
        The whole day through
    but it is unusual.)
  3. Prepositions perform multiple tasks so we have
        I met her at the station at 1 o'clock
    where at is performing two different, if related, functions.
  4. Prepositions need not be single words such as on or out.  There are many which are two words such as apart from or next to and some like as well as which are three words long.
  5. There is a certain randomness about the use of prepositions in many languages and English is no exception.  We say, e.g., in the morning, in the evening and in the afternoon but at night.

The prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase consists of the preposition and its complement (usually a noun or pronoun but sometimes a verb phrase with -ing).  Because prepositions are structural or functional words, they carry no meaning in themselves.  The word at means nothing but at the bus stop does carry meaning.  A prepositional phrase is generally the target of teaching, therefore.
As we shall see from the examples which follow, prepositions can be followed by a number of structures which act like nouns so we allow:
    She arrived after the meeting
with the simple noun phrase the meeting as the complement.
    They arrived with her
with the pronoun her as the complement.
    She arrived after the meeting had finished
with after the meeting had finished acting like a simple noun.
    They opened it by breaking the lid
with breaking acting as a noun.
    I haven't spoken about it until recently
with recently forming the prepositional complement.
    She came back from in the garden
with in the garden as the complement of the preposition from.
In English we do not allow a
that-phrase to act as the complement of a prepositions so:
    *She complained about that it was cold
is not allowed.
In other languages, this is an acceptable form and that often leads to some error.


Common prepositions

A list of all the prepositions in English runs to over 200 words but many are rare or obsolete words such as athwart, betwixt and pursuant to.  Except at quite advanced levels, these are probably best left alone.
There are far fewer common prepositions which form the majority of prepositional phrases.  Think of 10 and then click for a list.


Marginal prepositions

Some words, often verbs, can act as prepositions but are often categorised as something else (generally as non-finite verbs or even adjectives).  Here are some examples:


Making sense of prepositions

The two fundamental categories of prepositions are time and place.

Some of the prepositions above can naturally act in both ways (at 6 o'clock, at the bank), some only refer to place (beside the road) and some only to time (since 1940).  Can you categorise them?  Click when you have.

Preposition Use Example
on days on Monday, on my birthday
in months
time of day
period of time
in January
in the morning
in 1998
in two years
at night
weekend / holidays
point in time
at night (time)
at the weekend, at Christmas
at 4 o'clock
since from a point in time since then, since 2009
for a period of time for a week
ago postpositional for period of time two years ago
before earlier than a point in time before 9
to / till / until showing start and finish
from now to eternity
until the end of the day
past / to time telling ten past, quarter to
by at the latest by 10 o'clock at least


since, for and ago
cause serious problems because their concepts vary across languages.  Errors such as I have worked since 4 hours are common.
The word ago is particularly unusual in English because it follows rather than precedes the noun phrase.  It is, in fact, not a preposition at all, it's a postposition.
on, in and at
cause problems for similar reasons.  Teaching in the morning as a single item is a solution rather than asking learners to match prepositions to time expressions.
is frequently used with future perfect forms (such as She will have finished by 6).  In many languages until is synonymous so you will hear Be here until 6 o'clock (when by or before is meant).

Now, can you come up with a similar list for prepositions of place?  Click here when you have.


Prepositions of place

Here's a diagrammatic summary:

preposition grid
Source: adapted from Quirk and Greenbaum (1973:146)

Of course, static presentations of prepositions of movement are never fully satisfactory but it is possible to make mobile ones with an imaginative use of presentation software (such as PowerPoint).
Here are two examples of how that might look converted to mini-video presentations and, yes, of course, you may use them in your lessons (and yes, we know that middle of is not a preposition but it acts a bit like one).

in | inside | on | under | above | outside | into | out of | off | between aboard | across | ahead of | behind | beside | over | middle of | in front of | through 


Other functions of prepositions

Considerations of time and place do not exhaust the ways in which prepositions are used in English.
There is a link below to the in-service guide to the other meanings of prepositions but, briefly, the words also manage to:

  1. Show causes (why did it happen?):
        Due to his opposition, the idea was abandoned
        Because of the rain, the game was called off
  2. Showing agents (who did it?):
        The window was broken by the children
        The café was filled with children having lunch
  3. Show support or opposition:
        She's with me on this
        They are against the plan
  4. Show topics:
        She talked about her family
        He wrote a book on Persia
  5. Show ingredients:
        The cake is made from eggs, milk, sugar and flour
        They built the wall with stones from the garden
  6. Show similarities and differences:
        That's very unlike him
        She looks like her mother
  7. Show concession:
        In spite of the rain, we took the dogs out
        I'm leaving despite the time

Related guides
word class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
word class which briefly analyses this and other classes of words
prepositions of place for a more advanced guide to this set of prepositions
prepositions of time for a more advanced guide to this set of prepositions
prepositions with other meanings for a more advanced guide to what else prepositions can do
prepositional phrases for a more advanced guide to prepositions and their complements
7 meanings of over for a short video presentation in the teachers' section 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
a list of prepositions a PDF document which lists over 200 prepositions and postpositions

Take a short test.

Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S, 1973, A University Grammar of English, Harlow: Longman