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Concourse 2

Prepositions of place


There is an essential guide to prepositions in the initial plus training section and a guide to prepositional phrases in the in-service section.  Both those links open the guides in a new tab.

many prepositions

How many prepositions of place are there?

Lots.  In the graphic at the top, there are nearly 60 and that's not a full list.  Some, of course, such as athwart, abeam, chez and astride are rarely used but many are very common.  It's our job to make some sense of all this for our learners and to do that we have to do some serious language analysis.
Here's an unclassified reference list of the usual prepositions of place:

ahead of
apart from
astern of
away from
close to
far from
near to
next to
opposite to
out (of)
outside (of)
up to
If you would like that list as a PDF document, click here.

It is not too surprising that our learners have a bit of trouble with these.

Even learners whose first languages use prepositions (or postpositions) to refer to spatial relationships have trouble selecting the right one and for learners whose first languages signal spatial relationships in different ways, the task is even more complex.
The latter case will include learners whose first languages have case markers to express relationships.  For example:

For more on this, see the guide to case, linked below.


What do prepositions of place do?

Four things:

  1. They act as adjuncts which relate an event or state to a place.  For example
        We were talking in the garden.
  2. They act as post-modifiers telling us where something is.  For example
        We were talking to the man on the corner.
  3. They form the predicate after the verb be.  For example
        The wheelbarrow is in the garden.
  4. They can be the subject of copular verbs.  For example:
        In the garage is the best place for that
    (This is quite a rare function.)


How do we recognise a preposition of place?

That's not as simple as it might seem.  We have to look at the things that the prepositions actually do and then decide.  Words which are often seen as prepositions actually occur masquerading as members of different word classes quite regularly.  You don't always know that a word is a preposition until you put it in context.  Here's what's meant.
Which of the following contains a preposition?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

place prepositions 1


How do we analyse prepositions of place?

It's not at all easy because many do not lend themselves to neat categories and many overlap in meaning with others but we can make some sense of them by considering two factors:

  1. What dimension do they refer to?
    1. a point
    2. a line or a surface
    3. an area or volume
  2. Do they refer to position, to movement to a destination or to both?

Once we have those two factors in mind, life gets (a bit) simpler.  Try analysing the following prepositions in use and ask yourself:

  1. What sort of dimension do they refer to?
  2. Do they refer to position, to movement to a destination or can they refer to both?

Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

He walked to the corner
eye open
He stood at the corner
eye open
  1. Dimension = point
  2. Position only in this case because of the verb but it is also possible to use the preposition to refer to movement to a destination as in, e.g., Put it at the corner.
He put it onto the table
eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Movement to a destination only
He put it on the floor and it's still on it
eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Either movement to a destination (first use) or position (second use)
He took it away from me and told me to keep it away from the children
eye open
  1. Dimension = point
  2. Either movement to a destination (first use) or position (second use)
The helicopter took them off the ship ...
eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Movement to a destination in this case although you can have they are now off the ship where off refers to position
... and they are now out of danger
eye open
  1. Dimension = area or volume (metaphorically)
  2. Movement to a destination although you can have He stood out of danger where position is meant.
I put it into my pocket
eye open
  1. Dimension = volume
  2. Movement to a destination only
I put it in my pocket and it's still in there
eye open


A few more notes

  1. It is fairly easy to see from the above and with a bit of reflection on the list at the beginning, that most prepositions of place can be used to describe location and movement to a destination but some can only do one or the other.  For example:
    1. in, above, under and on can refer to both locations and movements to destinations:
          Put it in the box | It is in the box
          I hung it on the wall above the fireplace | It's always been on the wall above the fireplace
    2. into and onto as well as (usually), past and away from only refer to movement to a destination:
          Put it into the box | *It is into the box
          I nailed it onto the wall | *It's onto the wall
          I ran past the shop | *I stood past the shop
          She ran away from the house / *She stood away from the house
      However, when there is an implication is that movement is involved or potential.  For example:
          The pub is just past the bridge
          The pub is not far away from my house
      both refer to position but with potential movement to a destination.
      Movement towards a destination is sometimes described as positive and away from a destination as negative but that is something we can ignore for teaching purposes.
    3. A smaller set can only (usually) refer to static location.  This very short list includes: at, beside and by:
          I was at the station | *I went at the station
          I sat by/beside my aunt | *I went by/beside my aunt
      Even with some of these, it is possible to use verbs of movement providing the relative positions of the two participants are unchanged, e.g.,
          I ran beside him all the way.
      The other thing to note is that by (in common with some other prepositions) has alternative meanings.  In the sense of past, rather than next to, it can be used for movement:
          I ran by [past] the shop.
  2. Three prepositions of place can also act as postpositions in English:
    1. away is, as we have seen usually allied with from and functions prepositionally in, e.g.:
          She walked away from the shop
      but it can, standing alone, be a postposition in, e.g.:
          I left the car miles away
    2. on is a straightforward place preposition in, e.g.:
          She put it on the table
      but when movement from a position is implied, it can function as a postposition as in:
          From here on, we must go on foot
    3. over is also prepositional in, e.g.:
          She hung the picture over the fireplace
      but it can, with slight poetic effect, be used as a postposition as in, e.g.:
          She travelled the world over
      although the prepositional phrase all over is more common and neutral in style.


Prepositions are function words and, as is the case with most function words, are subject to a good deal of weakened and reduced pronunciation.
In particular, these prepositions of place are usually weakened in connected speech:

Preposition Weak form Full form
at /ət/ /æt/
from /frəm/ /frɒm/
to /tə/ /tuː/
onto /ˈɒn.tə/ /ˈɒn.tu/

Additionally, it is worth making learners aware of the facts that:

  1. in all disyllabic prepositions beginning with 'a' (and there are lots of them) the first syllable is always just /ə/ whether in connected speech or not.
    So we have, e.g.:
        along as /ə.ˈlɒŋ/
        around as /ə.ˈraʊnd/
        away as /ə.ˈweɪ/
        across as /ə.ˈkrɒs/
  2. in all prepositions beginning with 'be' (and there are a few), the first syllable is always pronounced as /bɪ/ (rather than /biː/) whether in connected speech or not.
    So, we have:
        before as /bɪ.ˈfɔː/
        below as /bɪ.ˈləʊ/
        beneath as /bɪ.ˈniːθ/
        beside as /bɪ.ˈsaɪd/
    and so on.


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 preposition 'means'.

Example 1: if you were asked to explain along the road, 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.

Using graphics

Many people respond well to graphical representations of the relationships set by prepositions and they are easy to invent off the cuff.  The two issues (position vs. movement and dimensions) are the things to consider.  Here are some cut-out-and-keep diagrams:


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


Other distinctions

Apart from movement vs. location and the three dimensions, there are some other distinctions to be made when explaining prepositions of place to your learners:

  1. Relative vs. absolute position and speaker orientation
  2. Horizontal vs. vertical position and movement
  3. Passage vs. destination
  4. Touching or not (contiguity)

One at a time, then.


Relative vs. absolute position and speaker orientation

Some prepositions refer to the relative positions only of two items or people.  I.e., they express where something is in relation to where something else is.  For example:
    Tom is in the town
is true wherever the observer is standing and wherever the town is so it is not concerned with relative position, only with the absolute position of Tom.  However:
    The car is behind the van
is only sensible if one knows where the observer is standing.  Move the observer or the second object (i.e., the object the car is relative to) and you change the relationship.  If the observer moves the sentence may become
    The car is in front of / on the left of / on the right of the van
etc.  Move the van and the sentence changes again.
Prepositions like this come in pairs of converse words.  If we say, e.g.
    My keys are underneath the newspaper
we are also implying that
    The newspaper is on top of my keys
It is not sensible to infer from
    Tom is in the town
    The town is around Tom
so that relationship is not relative.
Move the town and we still know where Tom is; move the newspaper and it all changes.

Can you classify the following?  Click eye open when you have done that.
above, over, under, beneath, in front of, in, inside, at, beyond

Prepositions describing movement to a destination are always relative because one of the objects at least is moving relative to the other.


Horizontal vs. vertical position

This is related because we are referring to relative positions, of course.
Can you classify these based on whether they refer to horizontal or vertical relationships?
Click eye open when you have done that.
on top of, underneath, below, in front of, on the right of, behind, beyond


Horizontal vs. vertical movement

When it comes to prepositions referring to movement, the same distinction applies.
Classify these and then click eye open:
up, down, along, across

That was pretty easy but note that up and down are often used to describe horizontal movement:
    He went down the road
    He went up the street.


Passage vs. destination

Three common prepositions refer to passage: through, across, past.
However, the dimensions they refer to are different.
Compare, e.g.:
    They walked across the garden.
    They walked through the forest.
    They walked past the house.
What do you notice?  Click eye open for a comment.


Touching or not (contiguity)

    It is below the table
    It is underneath the newspaper
to see what's meant by this.
Some prepositions such as on top of and underneath clearly imply that the two objects are in contact.  Others do not, although the objects may be touching, e.g.:
    I hid under the blanket
    I hid underneath the blanket.
A note on over, above, below, and under:
over and under imply a direct vertical relationship:
    the plane flew over the town
    the river flowed under the bridge
above and below can describe such a relationship but they can also imply simply a difference in elevation:
    the town is above the valley
    the river is below the market place
If you swap the prepositions around in those examples, you'll soon see what is meant.


the use of all

If some prepositions are modified with all, the sense may change slightly and be more pervasive:

and finally:

If we use a verb of movement whose meaning involves the sense of a preposition, we can omit the preposition without affecting the sense.  Compare, e.g.:


More classroom implications

Alerting our learners to whether a preposition refers to point, line or surface, area or volume and movement or location (or both) is part of the battle.
Step 2 is to consider the other variables:

  1. The orientation of the observer can usually be handled with simple diagrams such as
  2. Relative position and horizontal vs. vertical position can be handled the same way:
    vertical etc.
    Which of the following are true?
    Statement True? False?
    The blue box is over the green box     
    The black box is above the yellow box     
    The black box is over the yellow box     
    The yellow box is below the blue box     
    The brown box is under the red box    
    The red box is behind the yellow box    
    The pink box is under the black box    
    and so on and on and on.
  3. Issues of movement can also be illustrated.
    What can you say about the picture using went over, walked under, drove across, went along, walked through
        The train went over the bridge
        We walked under the bridge
        The boat went along the bridge

  4. across, through and past cause conceptual difficulties (not least because they rarely translate exactly, if at all) so need some kind of visual hook:
    past the hotel
    The taxi drove along the street and past the hotel without stopping.
  5. Dimensions
    As we see above, dimensions and viewpoints can easily be illustrated with five simple shapes (and an arrow if you want to show movement).  Here they are:
    point line surface
    point line surface
    area volume arrows
    area volume movement arrows
    Point of view can be added with three curves and a dot:
    With those simple shapes, in various combinations, you can illustrate virtually all the prepositions of place and alert your learners to their characteristics.
    Try it for yourself with some prepositions of place we have not considered in detail here like:
    against, ahead of, alongside, amid, among, between, close to, far from, next to, opposite to, towards, via etc.

And so on.  Your imagination, and that of your learners, determine the limits.

Summary of prepositions of place


Related guides
place adjuncts for an overview of how else we signal where something occurred in English
prepositions of time for a similar guide to another set of prepositions
prepositional phrases for a guide to prepositions and their complements
case for a guide inter alia of how some other languages signal spatial relationships.
prepositions with other meanings for a guide to non-time and non-place uses of prepositions
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
place adjuncts a guide which also considers adverb adjuncts and investigates some word order and syntactical issues

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