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1.7: Among the Prepositions

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    Prepositions are short, simple, and remarkably useful words. We use prepositions to create modifying phrases called prepositional phrases.

    With prepositions we can connect a noun phrase—called the object of the preposition—to another word in a sentence. The preposition and its object together make the prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase usually modifies a noun or verb, but it can also modify an adjective or adverb.

    Here are some examples of prepositional phrases. The prepositions are underlined, and the remaining words are the objects of the prepositions (with modifiers, in some cases):

    among the debris on the roof
    in the room
    to our house

    for your birthday

    beside our house from the roof
    by the room after dinner with her

    As you see, prepositions usually precede their objects—that is, they are pre-positioned before the objects.

    In English, there are hundreds of thousands of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, but there are relatively few prepositions—

    perhaps one hundred or so. The list below contains most of the frequently used prepositions.

    If you read over the following list (about seventy) now and then, and refer to it when you need to, it will be easier for you to recognize prepositional phrases. And dictionaries can always help you recognize them:

    aboard about above across after against along alongside amid amidst among amongst around as astride

    at
    atop before behind below beneath beside

    besides
    between
    beyond
    but (meaning except) by

    despite down during except for from in

    into like near
    of
    off
    on onto out outside over

    past
    save
    than
    since through throughout till

    to
    toward towards under underneath unlike
    until
    up
    upon
    with
    within without worth

    We’ll look at more prepositions shortly.

    The most important characteristic of a preposition is that it’s usually followed by its object. You have to be careful about classifying a word as a preposition, because many of them act as other kinds of words—especially as adverbs. Some can also be special kinds of words that we’ll study later, such as participles or as particles in phrasal verbs. A dictionary can help you make the distinction.

    MORE EXAMPLES

    Prepositional phrases serve a remarkable variety of purposes. Here are a few of their common uses, with prepositional phrases in the right-hand columns in the examples below.

    Prepositional phrases often indicate relative spatial positions, as in these examples modifying nouns (i.e., they’re all adjectival phrases):

    the alley the shingles the shingle the plate the shoe the picture

    behind [or beside] our house, on our block on top of our house
    on the roof
    in the cupboard, by itself

    under [or by] the sofa, without the other above the sofa, of Dorian Gray

    Prepositional phrases often indicate relative direction of movement, as in these adverbial examples:

    driving going going going leaving throwing

    by your house, down the street to your house, up the street into [or in] your house
    through [or around] your house from your house

    at your house

    (Well, that relationship went downhill in a hurry.)
    Prepositional phrases can also indicate time relationships, as

    in these adverbial examples:

    We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet We’ll meet

    after the film.
    at 8 pm.
    during the meeting. before dinner.

    for twenty minutes. until 8 pm.

    And some prepositional phrases are just creepy:

    The old house at the top of the hill
    The motel in the middle of nowhere The woman in the shower

    ADJECTIVAL OR ADVERBIAL?

    As we’ve just seen, prepositional phrases are used as adjectives or adverbs—that is, they’re used adjectivally or adverbially. Adjectival prepositional phrases usually follow the nouns they modify. The following sentences contain adjectival prepositional phrases, and we’ve underlined the entire phrase:

    The dog in the yard barked loudly. I read the first of three volumes. This is my letter to the principal.

    In each of the sentences above, the prepositional phrase modifies the noun it follows.

    In the sentences below, the adverbial prepositional phrases are underlined:

    I arrived at noon.
    I drove into the garage. I walked for exercise.
    I walked at a fast pace.

    As adverbs, these prepositional phrases tell us when, where, why, or how the action of the verb was performed.

    We learned earlier that adverbs modifying verbs are often movable. In the sentences below, we see that some of the underlined adverbial prepositional phrases are also movable. Typically, the moveable phrases indicate time, place, or manner:

    The dog barked loudly in the yard. In the yard, the dog barked loudly.

    Little Ruthie practiced the violin for two hours. For two hours, little Ruthie practiced the violin.

    Mr. Lochenhocher would rather listen to the dog.

    I’ve heard Ruthie play, and I’m with Lochenhocher.

    We can’t move the adverbial prepositional phrases in the last two sentences.

    Sometimes the guidelines for distinguishing adverbial and adjectival phrases don’t work as well as we’d like. Here’s another example:

    We drove the car into the garage.

    Into the garage follows car, but the phrase obviously doesn’t modify car. Here the prepositional phrase is adverbial; it answers the question, “Where did you drive the car?” But this adverbial phrase is not moveable. We probably wouldn’t write

    Into the garage, we drove the car.

    When we’re trying to identify the function of the prepositional phrase, the most important point to consider is the meaning of

    the phrase. Does it reasonably apply to a noun or an action? What does it describe?

    In other words, sometimes prepositional phrases—and other structures—are grammatically ambiguous. Consider this:

    Steve read the book in the living room.

    Does in the living room describe the book Steve read? That is, he read the book that was in the living room. In that case, the phrase is adjectival.

    But it might be adverbial: Steve was in the living room when he read the book. The sentence can plausibly be read either way, which is not at all unusual.

    To clarify, we could rewrite it this way:

    In the living room, Steve read the book.

    Now the phrase is unmistakably adverbial.
    There’s more. Adverbial prepositional phrases can also modify

    adjectives and adverbs. Below, they modify the adjectives sure and careless:

    He was too sure of himself.

    He was careless with the dynamite.

    (By the way, both of the adjectives above are called predicate adjectives, which we’ll learn about later.)

    Next, these prepositional phrases modify the adverb far: Musial hit the ball far into left field.
    We steered the boat far from the dock.

    In the four examples above, the prepositions phrases follow the words they modify. These adverbial uses are less common than those modifying verbs, and they are not moveable.

    CONCERNING AND REGARDING OTHERS

    Along with those we’ve seen so far, there are more one-word prepositions that are unusual, because they look like verbs. Specifically, they’re the –ing form of verbs. Here’s a list of common ones, with objects:

    barring bad weather concerning the budget considering the circumstances counting you
    excepting me
    following the instructions

    including her
    pending your letter respecting your question regarding that issue saving one last preposition touching the matter

    Some of these look like participles (which are –ing verbs used adjectivally, a category we examine in Chapter 17). They may have begun life that way. (Words sometimes go downhill like that.)

    Even the first list of prepositions contained one –ing word: during, with is a form of a verb we no longer use: dure, meaning endure.

    Other prepositions that look a bit like participles include given and notwithstanding:

    Given the weather, we should cancel the trip. Notwithstanding the weather, we’ll go anyway.

    Some authorities don’t accept all of the words above as prepositions.

    PHRASAL PREPOSITIONS

    This kind of preposition consists of a two-word phrase used as if it were one word. In the following examples, these phrasal prepositions are underlined:

    according to the Bible
    as for Steve
    because of the time depending on the weather except for Patrick

    instead of Stephanie out of flour
    owing to the weather up to you

    But grammatical categories can be porous, and sometimes authorities disagree about a word or phrase. Some grammar books and dictionaries identify the following phrases (or others like them) as prepositions:

    ahead of you alongside of you apart from you away from you close to you

    contrary to opinion due to him
    next to you together with you

    But there’s another way to analyze phrases like these. The first word could be read as an adjective or adverb depending on context, followed by a one-word preposition and its object (of you, from you, and the others).

    For example, the prepositional phrases in the following sentences are adverbial, modifying the adjectives and adverbs they follow:

    We are ahead of them.
    We are next to them.
    Events were contrary to expectations. We pulled alongside of the truck.

    Some authorities classify the following three-word phrases (and a few others) as prepositions:

    by means of in back of in case of in charge of in front of in search of

    But in their usual contexts, these are better analyzed as a series of two prepositional phrases, as in these examples:

    By means of law, He is in charge She is in front Call me in case

    the project will be stopped. of the unit.
    of the audience.
    of an emergency.

    So we’ll claim that prepositions are never more than two words long. But don’t be surprised if you encounter grammar books and dictionaries that recognize some three-word English phrases as “phrasal prepositions” or “compound prepositions.”

    LA PRÉPOSITION

    One remaining sub-class of prepositions are words borrowed from Latin and French. You’ll encounter them seldom, but most have their uses in certain contexts.

    à la [meaning “in the manner of”]
    He attempted to write à la H. P. Lovecraft.

    bar [meaning “except for”] She is the best, bar none.

    circa [meaning “in approximately”] Chaucer was born circa 1340.

    cum [meaning “together with”]
    He has built an office cum workshop.

    per [meaning “for every”]
    This car gets twenty-one miles per gallon.

    re [meaning “about”]
    We are writing re your complaint.

    versus [meaning “against”; abbreviated v.]
    We studied the famous case of Griswold v. Connecticut.

    via [meaning “by way of”]
    We traveled via the Interminable Turnpike.

    vis-à-vis [meaning “compared with”]
    We will consider our expenses vis-à-vis our income.

    In general, avoid these prepositions unless the context justifies them. Using them carelessly makes you seem pretentious, and there are perfectly good English words and phrases that you can use instead.

    POINTS FOR WRITERS

    1. Should you end a sentence with a preposition?

    One of the best-known rules of prescriptive grammar insists that we must never end sentences with prepositions. But, in fact, good professional writers do it all the time.

    You should be aware, however, that in formal contexts, some writers and editors regard sentences like the following as too informal or just plain wrong:

    He is the person who I want you to give this to.

    This sentence troubles some readers for one or two reasons. First, the preposition to is no longer before its object, who. In fact, the preposition and its object are widely separated. Second, by the strictest rules of grammar, who should be whom.

    Some editors and writers would prefer this version of the sentence:

    He is the person to whom I want you to give this.

    Still other editors might find this corrected version excessively formal for some purposes and readers because of whom and the placement of the prepositional phrase.

    If necessary, we can usually rewrite an entire sentence to eliminate problems like these, as the next two possible revisions show:

    Give this to him. He should get this.

    2. Unnecessary prepositions.

    It’s always a mistake to add an unnecessary preposition to a sentence. Here are some examples:

    She got off of the train this morning. Where did you find her at?
    She was waiting beside of the station.

    These are not colossal errors, but deleting unnecessary words is always a good thing to do.

    EXERCISES

    6a. In the following sentences underline the prepositional phrases and double-underline the preposition. Some sentences contain more than one prepositional phrase. If you need to, refer to the lists of prepositions in this chapter.

    1. In the morning, I drink coffee with cream.
    2. As a rule, I never put sugar in it.
    3. Amid cars and trucks, Edwina ran across the street.
    4. I am looking for the owner of this dog.
    5. Are you referring to the dog that is nipping at your leg?
    6. Throughout the book, the author emphasizes the influence of history upon our perception of events.
    7. Like Arthur, I walked down the hall and paid no attention to the noise within the office.
    8. According to Arthur, the noise out of the office was because of an argument between Ed and Grace.
    9. Arthur should not have been left in charge of the office during the summer.

    10. In case of further conflicts, we should make plans regarding appropriate training for all employees.

    6b. After you finish Exercise 6a, go back through the ten sentences above and decide if the prepositional phrases are adjectival (ADJ) or adverbial (ADV), and label them accordingly.

    Remember that adjectival prepositional phrases usually follow the nouns they modify and describe those nouns in some way.

    Adverbial prepositional phrases often follow the verb or appear at the beginning of the sentence. Adverbials tell us when, where, why, or how the action takes place. They are often moveable.


    1.7: Among the Prepositions is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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