Prepositions: words that link nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence

Prepositions cause lots of problems for lots of people, so do not worry if that includes you. It is hardly surprising these words create such havoc – after all, we might say, for example, that we are at the hospital, but we sometimes visit a friend who is in hospital.

Similarly, we lie in bed, but on a sofa. We might watch a play at a theatre or on television.

So, like I said, do not worry. Just pay attention to these little words and practise using them.

Prepositions fall into four categories:

  • Time prepositions (for example, at, on, in, since, for, during, before)
  • Location prepositions (at, on, in)
  • Direction prepositions (at, on, in, towards, around, through, across)
  • Position prepositions (beneath, under, over, on)

Here are some examples:

Time prepositions

  • ‘Peter ate his sandwich during the morning’s train journey.’
  • ‘Peter has lived in London since the mid-80s.’
  • ‘Peter has lived in London for 20 years.’
  • ‘Peter had his lunch at three o’clock.’
  • ‘Peter’s birthday is on March 20th.’
  • ‘Peter is going on holiday in three months…in the summer.’
  • ‘Peter is quitting work before he travels.’

Location prepositions

  • ‘Peter ate his sandwich on the train.’
  • ‘Peter has lived in London since the mid-80s.’
  • ‘Peter works at London Bridge.’

Direction prepositions

  • ‘Peter’s bus travelled through the red traffic light towards its destination.’
  • ‘That bus really did go around the houses.’
  • ‘Peter’s bus travelled across the bridge.’

Position prepositions

  • ‘Peter sat on the bus and read his newspaper.’
  • ‘Peter’s bus waited at the red light.’
  • ‘Peter sat beneath a crumbling bridge, over which rumbled a heavy lorry.’

The word or phrase that the preposition introduces is called the object of the preposition.

Prepositions, like over in the final example above, will always sit comfortably before the pronoun ‘which’ (as in, ‘…over which rumbled a heavy lorry.’).

And there has always been some debate about whether or not prepositions should be allowed to sit at the end of a sentence. My advice on this one is this: ask yourself – which version sounds better, clearer? Is it, for example, ‘The world we live in,’ or, ‘The world in which we live.’ That’s up to you, although it is always a good idea to tailor your style to suit your situation or intended reader.

What I would say is that wherever you place your preposition and however you structure your sentence around it, ensure that you don’t write the preposition twice, such as: ‘The world in which we live in,’ which is actually a Paul McCartney lyric, from the theme from ‘Live and Let Die’. (He’s allowed – it’s poetic licence and he was a Beatle!).

Prepositions with nouns, adjectives and verbs

Prepositions are sometimes so closely linked to other words that they almost act as one single word. This is the case when prepositions are used alongside certain nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Here are some examples:

Nouns and prepositions

  • approval of
  • belief in
  • concern for
  • love of
  • reason for

Adjectives and prepositions

  • afraid of
  • married to
  • happy about
  • made of
  • familiar with

Verbs and prepositions

  • give up
  • grow up
  • look up
  • pay for
  • find out

Be careful not to fall into bad habits with prepositions: it can be quite easy to use one where it is simply not necessary or required. For example:

  • Incorrect: ‘She met with her boss.’
  • Correct: ‘She met her boss.’
  • Incorrect: ‘I got it off of my brother.’
  • Correct: ‘I got it from my brother.’
  • Incorrect: ‘Where are you at?’
  • Correct: ‘Where are you?’
  • Incorrect: ‘He threw her stuff out of the window.’
  • Correct: ‘He threw her stuff out the window.’
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