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Concourse 2

Prepositions: other meanings


Unusually, the list of related guides to this area comes here at the beginning (but it is repeated and enlarged at the end for your convenience).  The reason for this is that other guides on this site cover the central meanings of prepositions in English and the grammatical and semantic functions of prepositional phrases.
Here's the list:

Related guides
prepositions of place for the guides to two specific groups of very common prepositions
prepositions of time
prepositional phrases a guide to the grammatical functions and meanings of prepositional phrases, phrase ordering and more
introduction to prepositions for a simpler guide to the area

This guide focuses on what other meanings and characteristics prepositions and prepositional phrases have and will exclude considerations of time and place.
It is, however, inevitable that some of the content of the guide to prepositional phrases will be covered here, too.

At the initial stages of learning any language, but especially English, it is important to get to grips with how prepositional phrases function to link verbs to places and times and the first two guides linked above cover those areas.
The third link takes you to a guide which covers the semantic and grammatical functions of prepositional phrases.
Once learners can handle prepositions of place and time, it is often necessary to move on to other meanings and functions which are of a subtler nature.
Too often, this is done on an ad hoc basis with the meanings dealt with as and when they arise in the context of other targets in the classroom.
This is a pity because the other meanings of prepositions in English do fall into recognisable categories, albeit slightly fuzzy ones, which can be taught.


Issues of classification

When prepositions are used to link verbs and noun phrases which do not refer to time and place, it is very difficult to classify their uses in watertight containers.  There is considerable overlap in meaning and terms such as reason, purpose, means, agent, cause and motive are variously interpretable.
For example, in the clause:
    I ran for the door
it is clear that the preposition is performing a slightly different function from the one in
    I ran to the door.
In the second case, we have a simple prepositions signifying direction of movement and such uses are covered elsewhere, but in the first case, we arguably have the preposition signifying the purpose of my running, not its direction or destination.  It may be the case that I didn't reach the door at all.  Compare, for example:
    She ran for help
which, again, cannot be understood as a case of the preposition signifying direction of movement because there is no sense of where the help lay or whether she reached it.

Equally, we have an issue with what are ostensibly prepositions of direction in the contrast between:
    She ran to the ball
    She ran at the ball
because in the second case, there is some doubt whether she reached the ball at all.

These examples are, naturally, somewhat refined and subtle uses of prepositions but that should not discourage us from tackling the issues in the classroom.
In what follows, we will not be taking any particular line in terms of classification but instead will select those concepts encoded by prepositions which seem most open to forming compact and recognisable teaching units.


Issues of translation

It is not possible, as all teachers of English can testify, to translate prepositions across languages easily.  Many languages, German for example, will make no distinction at all between:
    She ran for the ball
    She ran to the ball
and learners of those languages will find they confront significant conceptual barriers.
English is particular rich in prepositions (the list on this site runs to around 200 of them) and the distinctions in use between them are sometimes very nuanced.  Other languages, such as French and Greek which have far fewer prepositions to deal with will subsume meanings which are encoded with separate words in English under one word.  A case in point is the distinction between over and above which are rendered in Spanish, Russian, Catalan, German, Czech, Hungarian, Danish, Malay, Japanese and a host of others by a single word.  Just as many other languages (including Swedish, Serbian, Basque, Welsh and others) do make a distinction and the concept is, of course, translatable in other ways in all languages.

Even when a translation is available for a preposition in English in one sense, it is often the case that a different translation is called for when the sense shifts so, for example:
    I walked about the town
    It cost about $500
both contain the preposition about but the concept is different in each case.
It is rare for this to be parallelled in other languages and most will select a different preposition in each case.

The point being made is that translation in a single word or expression is unpredictable, unreliable, inconsistent and irregular.
If translation fails us, as it often does, our only recourse is to see how the prepositions are used in the target language and try to build up a mental picture of what each one means.  That is by no means easy but ignoring the topic certainly doesn't help.
The following is not intended to form a lesson plan, of course, but each section could, on its own, form the topic of teaching.



When we are addressing the concept of why something occurred, it is attractively simply to suggest that certain prepositions signify the relationship between cause and effect in a straightforward way.  For example, the prepositions in the following all link the cause with the outcome:
    The train was late because of the snow
    Due to the snow, the train was late
    The train was late on account of the snow
    Owing to the snow, the train was late

    The train was late as a result of the snow
and so on.
That works well when the preposition serves to link a direct physical cause with its physical consequence.

However, we also have to consider three other allied concepts in which prepositions work differently and different ones are selected to express the intended meaning:

If we wish to express the reason rather than the cause of something, we often select different prepositions so, for example:
    I was exhausted from all the work
cannot easily be rendered as:
    *I was exhausted because of the work
as we are dealing here not with cause and effect directly but are focused on the reason for a condition.
    From my research I can state two conclusions
expresses not the effect of the research but the reasons for the ability to state conclusions and cannot be rephrased as:
    *Owing to my research I can state two conclusions
refers also to psychological causes of actions and these are not usually encoded in the same way.  For example:
    I did it for fun
cannot be rendered as:
    *I did it because of fun
although it is clear that my motive for doing it was to have some fun.
We can render this with the subordinating conjunction, however, as:
    I did it because I wanted to have some fun
and that shows that it is conceptually a cause-effect phenomenon.
    He works for the money
tells us his motivation for working and is not open to rephrasing as:
    He works because of the money
since we are not talking directly about cause and effect.
Negative causality
There are times when we wish to express a cause negatively and for this, English uses a different set of prepositional phrases.  For example:
    The train wouldn't have been late but for the snow
    Without the snow, the train would have been on time
    Bar his long contribution, the meeting would have finished on time
    Save for the work she did, the project would not have been successful

Such expressions are quite rare and the ideas are often rendered with conditional structures such as:
    If his contribution hadn't been so long, the meeting would have finished on time.
Some ambiguity may arise with negative causality so, for example:
    I didn't come because of the chance that she would be there
may be interpreted either as:
    The reason I didn't come was because there was a chance she would be there
or as
    The reason I came was not that there was a chance that she would be there.
Only context and intonation (stressing because) will disambiguate the meaning.


Intended destination

Prepositions of place, in particular direction of movement are covered in the separate guide.  Here, we need to distinguish between a destination and an intended destination.
There is some overlap (you were warned) with the last category because motive and causality are allied phenomena to do with intention.
In this case, the preposition for is most common:
    We started for London
    We aimed for Paris
    They set out for the concert
    She left for America

and so on.
The distinction here is that the destination may not be achieved.  Compare, for example:
    He has gone to Margate
    He has left for Margate
in which the first implies strongly that he has reached Margate but the second only that Margate is his intended destination.

There are two allied concepts which are usually expressed with different prepositions:

If we wish to express that someone or something is the target of an action rather than an intended destination, we can also use for but the preposition at is also frequent.  For example:
    He put down poison for the rats (recipient target)
    She made a bed for the dog (recipient target)
    He threw the bottle at the car (target)
    He fired at the drone (target)
The distinction comes down to whether we see the target as being changed by the event or gaining from it or being adversely affected by it.  If the target is changed or benefits, the preposition of choice is for but if the target is not achieved or is an intended target only, the choice falls on at.
In addition, the preposition for may be replaced in the case of ditransitive verbs by the use of an indirect object so:
    She made the dog a bed
is a possible rephrasing but with at no such alteration is allowable.  We can have:
    She threw the book to me
rephrased as:
    She threw me the book
    She cooked dinner for me
cab be rephrased as:
    She cooked me dinner
    She threw the book at me
cannot be rephrased that way.
Achieved destination
If we want to express that the target has been achieved, the choice falls on to.  For example, compare:
    She called to me
which implies that I understood her message but
    She shouted at me
which does not.  Other verbal process verbs (talk, scream, mutter etc.) operate similarly.
This is the distinction alluded to above between, e.g.:
    She ran to the ball (and reached it)
    She ran at the ball (and probably did not reach it)



The converse, so to speak, of targets and destinations concerns sources and for this English is delightfully simple, confining itself almost wholly to the preposition from.
For example:
    She came from Austria
    I'm from Margate

An alternative, less commonly used, is out of as in e.g.:
    He arrived out of nowhere
    She walked out of the school

and so on, but the distinction is that this use is purely directional and does not necessarily imply a source.

Phrases with from are often used to post-modify noun phrases as in, e.g.:
    The woman from Margate
    The animals from the zoo




Agents and the passive

The agent in a passive-voice clause is usually introduced with the preposition by as in, e.g.:
    The glass was broken by the hail
    She was invited by her friend
and so on.
Such clauses can be rendered in the active voice (usually) as:
    The hail broke the glass
    Her friend invited her

However, there are times when the preposition does not work quite this way and no active-voice rephrasing is possible.  For example:
    She came in by the back door
    They went to work by car
and in these cases, the sense is not of an agent per se but of the means by which something was accomplished.
In these examples, both the verbs (come and go) are intransitive so no possible normal passive-voice interpretation can be placed on the use of by to introduce an agent.  What it introduces is the means.

Actively, the preposition with is common to link the action to the agent.  For example:
    She broke the glass with a hammer
which can be rendered in the passive as:
    The glass was broken with a hammer
but the hammer is not the agent, it is the means which the agent used and the full passive-voice equivalent must be:
    The glass was broken with a hammer by her

In the passive, too, the agent may be linked using with so we allow:
    The carpet was soaked with the water
    The restaurant was filled with diners
which can both be transformed to active sentences:
    The water soaked the carpet
    Diners filled the restaurant
but this use is rarer and can also be analysed as a post-modified adjectival phrase.
A slightly grey area concerns the distinction between with and by.  The former is often analysed as post-modifying an adjectival phrase and the latter as the way of linking the agent to the verb in a passive construction.  Compare, for example:
    The wedding was followed by a reception party
    The wedding was followed with a reception party.
It is difficult to perceive a great difference, if any, between the sentences but traditionally, followed in the first example is described as a past participle form of the verb and as an adjective in the second example.

Agents vs. means

The upshot is that we need to distinguish between means and agents.  Compare, in this respect:
    The wall was built with stones taken from the garden
    The wall was built by stones taken from the garden
both of which signify that the stones were the means, not the agent (because stones don't build walls).
Consider, too:
    The truth was revealed by the email Mary sent
in which by introduces the means, not the agent per se (who is, in fact, Mary).

Abstract agents

When the agent, so to speak, is an inanimate abstract concept, we can use by or at interchangeably.  For example:
    I was astonished by her confidence
    I was astonished at her confidence
A few other prepositions can also be used with abstract agents:
    She is interested in history
    They were concerned about the possible consequences
which can be rephrased in the active as:
    History interests her
    The possible consequences concerned them
but these sorts of expressions can alternatively be analysed as verbs with dependent prepositions.


Supporters and opponents

There is no obvious connection between against concerning position or direction of movement as in, e.g.:
    I leant against the wall
    She hit the car against a gatepost
and the use of the same preposition to refer to being in opposition to something as in, e.g.:
    I am against the idea
but it is surprising how a number of languages, Spanish, Welsh, Dutch and French among many more, also use the same preposition for both ideas.  Of course, an equal if not greater number of languages don't do this.
There are few difficulties here to note:

  1. There is a difference between:
        I am for you
        I am with you
    because for implies supporting and with implies accompanying and therefore by extension in solidarity.
  2. The opposite of with in this case cannot be rendered as without.  Usually without is the simple negative of with so we get:
        She did it with difficulty
        She did it without difficulty
    However, in this sense, that is not a possible alternative so:
        We are with you on that
    is positive and cannot be made negative as:
        *We are without you on that
  3. The preposition against is used as the antonym of both with and for:
        I am with him in his opposition to the new road
        I am for the new road
        I am against him in his opposition to the new road
        I am against the new road



Only two prepositions trouble us here, on and about, but the distinction between them is somewhat subtle and, familiarly, not mirrored in other languages.

  1. on is the preferred preposition when a formal talk or speech is concerned and about implies a much less formal, casual mention of a topic so we get, for example:
        He gave a lecture on iguanodons
        He talked about his family
    Semantically, therefore, about collocates with a range of verbs describing informal language:
        chat about
        gossip about
        row about
        argue about
        teach about
        keep quiet about

    and on collocates with more formal verbs:
        lecture on
        give a speech on
        speak on

  2. Both prepositions are routinely used for the subject matter of written texts:
        a book on / about butterflies
        a treatise on / about iguanodons

    Perhaps because of its generally less formal nature, reference to the subject of websites is usually confined to about rather than on:
        It's a website about grammar
        ?It's a website on grammar
  3. The preposition concerning may be used in both ways although it is always a more formal term.
        We kept quiet concerning the wedding
        She gave a speech concerning the crime statistics
  4. The preposition of can be used instead of about but not instead of on:
        He talked of his family
        *He gave a lecture of family law
  5. On, about and concerning can all post-modify noun phrases but of cannot function in this role:
        It's a book on physics
        I wrote a paper about the geology of the area
        He wrote a letter concerning the proposal
        *She made a telephone call of the subject



Again, only two prepositions, with and out of, are usually concerned here and the differences are distinct.

  1. with implies that whatever is linked forms only one ingredient of many:
        I built the shed with metal sheets
    which suggests that metal sheets were just one of the materials I used to build the shed.
  2. out of implies that the material was the sole ingredient:
        I built the shed out of wood
    suggests that no other materials were used.
    This distinction is not conformed to by all speakers of English.
  3. Usually the choice is with to post-modify noun phrases concerning how things are made or used:
        a house built with brick
        a shed filled with junk

    but out of it heard in this meaning with the verb make:
        a castle made out of sand
    although other verbs cannot be used with this preposition:
        *a driveway laid out of stone
  4. The preposition of (without out) is used when the noun denotes a material of some kind:
        a table of mahogany
        a sea of mud

        a heart of gold


Similarity and differences

Two prepositions signal these relationships although there are prepositions which act as part of an adjective phrase, as in, e.g.:
    He is different from his father but similar to his mother in that respect
    All the houses were similar to each other on the estate

The two prepositions are, in fact, only marginally prepositions in any case as they can both be modified by adverbs in the same way the adjectives are (and both are, in fact adjectives in other grammatical environments).  The two are exemplified here:
    She sounds so like her sister on the telephone
    Your car, unlike mine, is pretty reliable
    Unlike anyone I have ever met before, she enjoyed the bagpipe music
    That looks like a good solution
    Unlike their parents in that respect, they saved money responsibly

It is perfectly arguable that the word unlike is more adjectival than prepositional but the role of like in linking subjects to complements in copular verb clauses is undeniably prepositional.
We are dealing with the phenomenon of gradience here (i.e., the difficulty in confidently assigning a lexeme to a particular word class), to which there is a guide, linked below.



Four prepositions are used in English to signify a concession of some kind and they are exemplified here:

  1. The preposition in spite of is the most common:
        I went out in spite of the rain
        In spite of the comments made, I am unconvinced
  2. The preposition despite performs the same function and can be used interchangeably (although it is slightly more formal):
        I went out despite the rain
        Despite the comments made, I am unconvinced
  3. The preposition for all is slightly unusual in containing a pre-determiner, all, which must be used:
        She loved him for all his faults
        For all her claims to know the truth, she was wrong
    This use is generally informal.
  4. The preposition notwithstanding is the most formal of all but it performs exactly the same function:
        Notwithstanding the rain, I went out
        I am unconvinced notwithstanding the comments made
    It is often used in legal documents.

Because there is such a limited range of prepositions performing this concessive function, it makes a neat, self-contained teaching unit.



A number of closely related prepositions signify an exclusion of some kind from what has been said or written.  For example:

  1. Except for / With the exception of / Excepting the rain, it was a good day out
  2. Apart from seeing my mother, I enjoyed the trip to the theatre
  3. Bar / Barring the price, I was happy with the work
  4. Everyone was happy and contented except / but me
  5. Aside from the rain, we had a good day out

The first three sentences contain prepositions which are generally interchangeable and perform the same semantic and grammatical functions.  There are differences of style, with bar, barring and with the exception of being somewhat more formal.

The two prepositions in example 4, but and except are unusual syntactically:

Sentences 2. and 5. contain rather unusual words.  When aside forms part of a phrase in aside from it is prepositional and means except for.  The word apart performs a similar function paired with from and also means except for, as in:
    He said nothing apart from a few words
    He said nothing aside from a few words
However, both these words can be used alone, without being paired with from, as postpositions as in, e.g.:
    A few words apart, he said nothing
    A few words aside, he said nothing
The only other postposition in common use is ago which also follows rather than precedes its noun phrase.
The words away, hence, notwithstanding, on, over, short and through can also be used as postpositions.  See the guide to prepositional phrases for examples of their use.

There is an odd combination of all + but to mean very nearly as in, e.g.:
    She all but fainted when she saw the bill.


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:



Finally, we should note that prepositions are function words and, like all function word groups, many are subject to weakening in pronunciation.  The weak forms of place and time prepositions are listed in the guides to those areas and will occur when the prepositions are not performing those two functions, too.
See the links below for more.

There's a short matching task on this.  Click here to do it.

Related guides
prepositions of place for the guides to two specific groups of very common prepositions
prepositions of time
prepositional phrases a guide to the grammatical functions and meanings of prepositional phrases, phrase ordering and more
introduction to prepositions for a simpler guide to the area
multi-word verbs for the section of that guide which considers prepositional verbs (also known as verbs with dependent prepositions)
gradience for the guide which considers how some words may slide between classes and prepositions, such as like and since, are good examples
cause and effect for a guide to how the concepts are linked functionally in English