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What is a preposition?

What is a preposition? It is a word (often a tiny, little two-letter one) or phrase used to show a relationship between a noun and another part of the sentence.

The relationship might be a positional one (your tea is in the oven), temporal (I’ll come after the cricket finishes), or directional (You’ll get into trouble); it might have a more abstract, semantic role (as of plays in I’ve had enough of this). However, for the definition of a preposition, they all need one thing: a word to work with, or complement.

Get down from that ladder! puts the message across nicely, but if it’s missing a complement, Get down from! makes no sense – in English, at least.

There are loads of prepositions, comfortably over 100 in regular use in English, and discussion of them is often obscured in a dense foliage of grammatical terminology. Perhaps this is because they seem to come so naturally to us in speech, even when dealing with abstract contexts, and they number amongst the most commons words in most languages. Once you factor in prepositional phrases like from the romantic city of Paris, the potential is limitless.

They are often divided into three groups: prepositions of place (namely, at, in and on), prepositions of time (the same words with different meanings), and prepositions of direction (including many more of them). Other categories include telic and atelic prepositions (concerned with whether or not the action is completed), projective and non-projective prepositions (relating to the perspective of the speaker), and simple and complex prepositions (from in to in relation to).

What starts out in books for tiny children with simple examples (the gun is in her hand; the bullet passes through her shoulder; the police are around the building), gradually shifts into metaphorical territory where the meaning is neither spatial nor temporal (I am in favour of gun control). Indeed, time-specific prepositions like before and after come from spatial coordinates themselves – before from ahead of, and after as in the aft of a ship.

Tricky creatures

They are devious little beasts, these prepositions, sent to trip up even the most fluent speakers of another language. A one-to-one translation of every preposition is impossible: one speaker will tell you that they in the train (im Zug, in German), while another will tell you they are on it (you guessed it, the English speaker). English speakers will admit to travelling in a car, but otherwise it is on with all other forms of transport. The logic can be argued until both speakers are blue in (or is that on?) the face, but neither of their choices will sound correct to the other.

The same word (up, for example) is sometimes not a preposition at all. For example, the up in pick up the gun is not a preposition; it’s a phrasal verb. However, hide the gun up the chimney is, because the up links the gun with the chimney.

Some may try and tell you that ending a sentence with a preposition is a mortal sin, but this is a myth, a result of an unrealistic project in the seventeenth century to make English more like Latin. Stranded or dangling prepositions, as they are often known, have been around as long as English itself and are a common feature in Germanic languages.

What is a preposition? It is a word or phrase that shows a relationship between the subject in a sentence and its complement, e.g., the definition of preposition is in the dictionary.

Examples of prepositions

spatialoutsidethinking outside the box
temporalbeforehe arrived before noon
directionaltowardmoving toward the goal

Definition of objects of preposition

The object of a preposition is the noun, noun phrase, pronoun or gerund that completes the prepositional phrase. It is also known as the complement. Without it, there is no preposition.

The minimum required for a prepositional phrase is a preposition and a complement, e.g. to me or to you. If you want to flesh out the phrase with some more detail (and why wouldn’t you?), then the other words that you include are modifiers. Even the humble a or the add more detail to the object of the preposition and are therefore modifiers.

I emerged unscathed from the crime-ridden, violent city.

The sentence above features the prepositional phrase from the crime-ridden, violent city, which can be broken down into preposition (from), complement (city) and modifiers (the, crime-ridden, and violent).

Sometimes, it might seem like there is a subject in the preposition, but this is never the case: for example, in the sentence neither of these men have your money, neither is the subject, not the other noun, men.

Pronoun object of preposition

Complements of prepositions are always in the objective case, which means that the pronouns her, him, me, us, them, etc. are used. This might make prepositions themselves easier to spot in a sentence. This will also help the speaker (or writer) identify whom as the correct complement after a preposition (To whom should I address this letter of complaint?), although questions often leave the preposition dangling at the end.

If you find yourself unsure whether to use Dave and I or Dave and me in a sentence, look for a helpful preposition: if Dave follows any preposition, it should be Dave and me, as in the travel agent booked the flights for Dave and me. It might be that you do not need to feature Dave or his companion in your writing at all, but that is a different matter. (Poor Dave.)

Other objects of prepositions (examples underlined) include nominal clauses (we’re talking about how often the price of eggs have gone up since last year), gerunds (I’ve been dreaming about swimming) and adjectival phrases (things are going from bad to worse). Sometimes the phrase is adverbial, which results in one preposition apparently following another: for example, take thy beak from out my heart, in which only from is in a prepositional spot.

Position of the complement

The preposition will normally appear immediately before the complement in the text (under the table, during the terrible weather), but occasionally it will appear at the end of the sentence, such as in a question (what do you want that for?) or an infinitive clause (a book of rules to live by).

Examples of objects of preposition

Prepositional phrasePrepositionComplementModifier(s)
back of the netofnetthe
into an ecstatic stateintostatean, ecstatic
in spite of all I’ve donein spite ofall I’ve done (phrase) –
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