What are prepositions?

A preposition is a word which precedes a noun (or a pronoun) to show the noun’s (or the pronoun’s) relationship to another word in the sentence. (The word preposition comes from the idea of being positioned before. It is not true to say that a preposition always precedes a noun or a pronoun, but it does most of the time.)

The following are all prepositions:

above, about, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, since, to, toward, through, under, until, up, upon, with and within.

Role of a Preposition

Prepositions are important when constructing sentences. A preposition sits before a noun to show the noun’s relationship to another word in the sentence.

Examples:

  • It is a container for butter.
    (The preposition for shows the relationship between butter and container.)  
  • The eagle soared above the clouds.
    (The preposition above shows the relationship between clouds and soared.)

Pitfalls with Prepositions

For native English speakers, grammatical errors involving prepositions are rare. The most common errors involving prepositions are shown on the right. That said, there are several points of which to be aware:

1) Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

As a useful guideline, try to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. (However, as shown later in this section, there are several factors to consider.)

Examples:

  • That is a situation I have not thought of.
    (The word of is a preposition. Writers should avoid ending sentences in prepositions. This is because a preposition should sit before a noun or a pronoun.)
  • She is a person I cannot cope with.
    (The word with is a preposition.)
  • It is behaviour I will not put up with.
    (This example ends in two prepositions: up and with.)

Not a Serious Error

Where possible, you should avoid ending a sentence in a preposition. However, after shuffling the words so that the preposition is not at the end, the re-structured version often sounds contrived and unnatural.

Examples:

  • That is a situation of which I have not thought.
    (This version is grammatically more pure than the one above. In this example, the word of sits before which (a type of pronoun)
  • She is a person with whom I cannot cope.
  • It is behaviour up with which I will not put.
    (This example sounds extremely contrived.)

Reword to Avoid

Often, the best solution is to re-word the sentence.

Examples:

  • That is a situation I have not considered.
    (There are no prepositions in this sentence, and it has the same meaning.)
  • It is behaviour I will not tolerate.

Leave the Preposition at the End

If the sentence sounds too contrived after it has been reworded, another option is to leave the preposition at the end of the sentence.

    • There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. – Oscar Wilde

(This is an example of a sentence that should be left with the preposition at the end.)

2) Verbs with Prepositions

Phrasal verbs (e.g., to get awayto put off) are usually more appropriate in informal circumstances, such as speaking or emails. Single-word verbs (often derived from Latin) are usually more appropriate in formal writing. However, Latinate verbs can sound too corporate or dry. So, writers should always consider whether the clarity and naturalness afforded by a phrasal verb is worth the informality it will also bring.
Some phrasal verbs have prepositions that do not add anything. In those circumstances, delete the prepositions to improve succinctness (e.g., I cannot face up to the consequences becomes I cannot face the consequences.)

3) Object of a Preposition

The words that follow a preposition are called the object of the preposition.

Examples:

  • The cat ran under the car.
    (The words the car are the object of the preposition under.)
  • Can you give this parcel to him tomorrow?
    (The word him is the object of the preposition to.)

As covered in the lesson on prepositions, a preposition usually sits before a noun (i.e., a word like dogmanhouseAlan) or a pronoun (i.e., a word like himher, whichit, them). This is worth knowing, because the object of a preposition is always in the objective case, and pronouns change in this case. (That sounds really complicated, but it just means that he changes to him when you say something like next to him, and she changes to her when you say something like It’s for her. In general, native English speakers have little trouble forming the objective case.)
Examples:

  • Can you give the parcel to him?
    (He changes to him in the objective case.) 
  • I went to the cinema with them.
    (They changes to them in the objective case.)

Who and Whom

The problem seems to be with who and whom. These two words are no different from pairings like I/mehe/himshe/herwe/us, and they/them, but they are responsible for a lot more grammar mistakes.

The word whom is the objective case of who, and this pairing causes some confusion. (This is covered more in the lesson Who and Whom.)

Examples:

  • Andy saw the scouts, at least one of whom was armed, through the mist.
    (Whom – objective case after the preposition of)
  • Against whom did you protest if there was nobody present?
    (Whom – objective case after the preposition against)
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