What is a Preposition?

A preposition is a word used to connect nouns, pronouns, or phrases to other words found in a sentence. Prepositions act to link the people, objects, time and locations of a sentence. Prepositions are usually short words. They are normally placed directly in front of nouns. In some cases, prepositions can be found in front of gerund verbs (verbs that act as nouns that name an activity rather than a person or thing). Examples: Jogging is a hobby of mine. Marisa quit smoking years ago. Some people prefer getting up early in the morning.

A nice way to think about prepositions is as the words that help glue a sentence together. They do this by expressing position and movement, possession, time and how an action is completed. Several of the most frequently used words in all of English, such as of, to, for, with, on and at, are prepositions.

Examples of Prepositions

In the following sentences, examples of prepositions have been italicized. As you read, consider how using different prepositions or even different types of prepositions in place of the examples might change the relationship between the rest of the words in the sentence.

  1. I prefer to read in the library.
  2. He climbed up the ladder to get onto the roof.
  3. Please sign your name on the dotted line after you read the contract.
  4. Go down the stairs and through the door.
  5. He swam across the pool.

Types of Prepositions

There are three types of prepositions, including:

  1. prepositions of time
  2. prepositions of place
  3. prepositions of movement (direction)

Prepositions of time are those such as before, after, during, and until;

Prepositions of place are those indicating position, such as around, between, and against;

Prepositions of movement (direction) are those that indicate direction, such as across, up, and down. 

A. Prepositions of Time

Basic examples of time prepositions include: at, on, in, before and after. They are used to help indicate when something happened (past tense), happens (present tense) or will happen (future tense). It can get a little confusing though, as many different prepositions can be used.

Prepositions of time examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.

  1. I was born on July 4, 1945.
  2. I was born in 1945.
  3. I was born at exactly 2:00 a.m.
  4. I was born two minutes before my twin brother.
  5. I was born after World War II ended. 

The five examples above make it seem difficult, with five different prepositions used to indicate when something happened. However, there is a set of guidelines that can help decide which preposition to use:

For years, months, seasons, centuries and times of day, use the preposition in:

  1. It is always cold in January
  2. The Second World War occurred in the 20th century.
  3. We eat breakfast in the morning.

For days, dates and specific holiday days, use the preposition on.

  • We go to school on Mondays, but not on
  • Valentine’s Day is on February 14.
  • I received a present on my birthday.

For times, indicators of exception and festivals, use the preposition at:

  • Families often get together at
  • I work faster at
  • Her shift finished at 7:00 pm.

Before and after should be much easier to understand than the other examples of prepositions of time. Both are used to explain when something happened (past tense), happens (present tense) or will happen, (future tense), but specifically in relation to another thing.

  • Before I discovered the new gym, I used to go straight home after
  • We will not leave before 3:00 pm.
  • David comes before Bryan in the line, but after

Other prepositions of time could include: during, about, around, until, and throughout.

  • I learned how to ski during the holidays.
  • It was about six in the morning when we heard the foghorns.
  • He usually arrives around 3:00 pm.
  • The store is open until
  • The concert will be staged throughout the month of May.

B. Prepositions of Place

To confuse matters a bit, the most common prepositions to indicate time – on, at, in – are also the most common prepositions to indicate position. However, the rules are a little clearer as place prepositions are a more rigid concept than time prepositions.

Prepositions of place examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.

  1. The cat is on the table.
  2. The dogs are in the kennel.
  3. We can meet at the crossroads. 

The guidelines for using prepositions of place are as follows:

On is used when referring to something with a surface: Words in italics are examples of surfaces:

  1. The sculpture hangs on the wall.
  2. The images are on the page.
  3. The specials are on the menu, which is on the table.

At is used when referring to something at a specific point. Examples of specific points are in italics:

  1. The boys are at the entrance at the movie theater.
  2. He stood at the bus stop at the corner of Water and High Streets.
  3. We will meet at the airport.

In is used when referring to something that is inside or within confined boundaries. This could be anything, even a country

  1. Jim is in France, visiting his aunt in the hospital.
  2. The orange juice is in the jar in the refrigerator.
  3. The girls play in the garden.

Many other prepositions of place, such as under, over, inside, outside, above and below are used in Standard American English.

  1. The cat is under the table.
  2. Put the sandwich over there.
  3. The key is locked inside the car.
  4. They stepped outside the house.
  5. Major is ranked above corporal.
  6. He is waving at you from below the stairs. 

C. Prepositions of Movement (Direction)

Prepositions of movement describe how something or someone moves from one place to another. The most commonly used preposition of movement is to, which usually serves to highlight that there is movement toward a specific destination.

Prepositions of movement examples in the following sentences are in bold for easy identification.

  1. He has gone on vacation to France.
  2. She went to the gym every Friday last summer.
  3. I will go to bed when I am tired. 

Other more specific prepositions of movement include through, across, into, and off. These prepositions can sometimes get mixed up with others. While they are similar, they have individual meanings that add understanding to the movement.

Through refers to moving directly inside something and out the other end.

  1. The cat went through the opening in the fence.
  2. The train passes through the tunnel.

Across refers to moving from one side to another.

  1. Mike travelled across America on his motorcycle.
  2. Rebecca and Judi are swimming across the lake. 

Into refers to entering or looking inside something.

  1. James went into the room.
  2. They stare into the darkness. 

Off refers to moving away and often down from something or leading in a direction away from something

  1. He rolled off the couch after his nap.
  2. Sarah’s GPS directions took her off the main highway. 

Up, over, down, past and around also indicate directions of movement:

  1. Jack went up the hill.
  2. We will travel over rough terrain on our way across the United States.
  3. The ball went down the sewer.
  4. A car zoomed past a truck on the highway
  5. The horse runs around the track all morning.

How to Recognize a Preposition

Recognizing prepositions can be challenging because they do not always follow a consistent pattern in terms of their position in a sentence and because they can sometimes have more than one spelling. What is true about prepositions, however, is that they are almost always short words, many of which are less than six letters. Prepositions are used with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Here are some examples. 

A. Prepositions with Nouns

There are many different nouns that link with prepositions to strengthen their meaning. And, there is a wide variety of noun-preposition combinations. Prepositions that combine with nouns are referred to as dependent prepositions. One way to become familiar with dependent prepositions is to read Standard American English books, journals, newspapers and other professional writing samples. Below are some common dependent prepositions in bold for easy identification.

  1. Maria enjoys science because he has knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics.
  2. 18 is the age at which a teenager gets the right to vote.
  3. The Olympic athlete made another attempt at the world record.

B. Prepositions with Verbs

Prepositions with verbs are known as prepositional verbs. They link verbs and nouns or gerunds to give a sentence more meaning. The prepositions most often used with verbs are: to, for, about, of, in, at and from. Dependent prepositions are different from prepositional verbs because they always come after the verb in a sentence. However, it is important to know that prepositional verbs can have a slightly different meaning compared to the original verb to which they are linked. For example, “to relate a story: simply means to tell a story; “to relate to a story” means the reader identifies with it. The story has some personal meaning for the reader. Below are some prepositional verbs in bold for easy identification. 

  • Verb + to:
    I go to California on vacation twice a year.
    William can relate to the character in the play.
  • Verb + for:
    We searched for a long time before we found the perfect apartment.
    I provide for my family by working two jobs.
  • Verb + with:
    The teacher said she will meet with your parents to discuss your scholarship.
    The team practice began with a quick warm-up session.
  • Verb + of:
    Most people dream of becoming successful in their chosen profession.
    The bread consists of dough, raisins and a little honey.
  • Verb + in:
    The heavy traffic resulted in my being late to work.
    Many famous actors live in Hollywood.
  • Verb + at:
    We arrived at our destination in time to have dinner.
    Ilene excels at singing.
  • Verb +on:
    We should really concentrate on our studies now.
    The artist experimented on some canvas using oil paints.
  • Verb + from:
    Margaret retired from the navy in 2010 after serving 25 years.
    Since turning 90, my mother suffers from lapses of memory.

C. Prepositions with Adjectives

Prepositions can form phrases with adjectives to enhance action, emotion or the thing the adjective is describing. Like verbs and nouns, adjectives can be followed by to, about, in, for, with, at, and by. Below are some prepositions with adjectives in bold for easy identification.

  1. Claire is happily married to
  2. Michelle is interested in politics and is studying history and political science.
  3. The entire audience was astonished by the beauty of Carmella’s voice.

When adjectives have the same or very similar meaning to each other, they can take the same preposition:
Frightened of, afraid of, scared of, terrified of

Even when adjectives have opposite meanings they might also take the same preposition:
Good at, great at, superb at, wonderful at
Bad at, terrible at, woeful at, inept at

One of the most efficient ways to know which adjectives and prepositions link well is to recognize and memorize adjective-preposition combinations. Below are some commonly used adjective-preposition links are found below and are in bold for easy identification.

  1. I am good at sports means I have some athletic talent.
  2. The nurse was good to my mother means the nurse took care of my mother and was nice, kind, and helpful.
  3. Swimming is good for your health.
  4. I am good with animals means I get along with them and handle them well.
  5. The blueberry jam will be good on


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