1. What is a Prepositional Phrase?
A preposition is a word that connects two phrases or ideas in a sentence. Prepositions are used to specify when, where, how, and why. A simple prepositional phrase includes a preposition and its object, which can be a single word or a group of words expressing a single idea. The purpose of using a prepositional phrase is to provide additional information about a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.
We use prepositional phrases when we want to specify when or where something is, or in which situations something is true.
2. Examples of Prepositional Phrases
Although some grammarians say there are more than 150 prepositions in total, you don’t need to memorize all the prepositions in order to identify one in a sentence. Because prepositional phrases provide extra information about a clause, they are usually found at the end of that clause. In the examples below, the modified phrases are in purple, the prepositions are green, prepositional phrases have been underlined, and the objects of prepositions (see section 3) are in italics.
- Today is the first day of the month. The first day is part of the month.
- I take my coffee with milk and sugar. My coffee includes milk and sugar.
- Yesterday, we met in the auditorium. Where we met was the auditorium.
- She likes all colors except for yellow. All colors does not include yellow.
3. Parts of a Prepositional Phrase
Every prepositional phrase consists of one or more prepositions and one or more objects.
As mentioned earlier, prepositions are used to specify when, where, how, and why. It is also the word that begins a prepositional phrase. A preposition links one part of a sentence with another.
to, for, with, by, at, on, in, of, etcetera…
- on the table
- with cinnamon on top
- in the microwave
The second part of a prepositional phrase is called the object of a preposition. It has an object which can be one word, but is usually longer. An object of a preposition is also a word or phrase which gives a preposition its meaning. It tells us something about the time, place, manner, or intention of the idea or phrase it modifies (or modified phrase). The modified phrase is usually placed right before the preposition.
Consider the following sentence:
She went to the bank.
The full prepositional phrase is “to the bank.” The preposition in this sentence is to, the object of the preposition is the bank, and the modified phrase is she went.
When the object of a preposition is a pronoun, it is always in the objective case:
She gave it to me. (correct)
She gave it to I. (incorrect)
c. Multiple Prepositions
Sometimes a prepositional phrase begins with more than one preposition. A combination of two or more prepositions expresses a different meaning than its individual parts. Here are some examples:
- The toy is made out of plastic.
- I tore a piece off of the loaf.
- They appeared out of nowhere.
- She climbed down out of the tree.
Prepositional phrases may also include more than one preposition separated by a conjunction:
- He bumps his head going up and down the stairs.
- It’s hard to transition into or out of a habit.
- Your last book report went above and beyond expectations.
In the above cases, each preposition applies separately to its object, but each keeps its original meaning. Therefore, the first sentence can be rewritten as follows without changing its meaning:
He bumps his head going up the stairs. He bumps his head going down the stairs.
4. Types of Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases can be used to provide all sorts of information about a noun, pronoun, or verb. But most prepositional phrases fall into one of the following categories.
Some prepositional phrases tell us who did something or who received something.
- Mitch was scared by the dog. Who did it.
- Mom gave the present to my sister. Who received it.
Other prepositional phrases tell us what is used to complete an action.
- Megan washed her car with a hose. What was used.
- Samantha bought the tickets with her phone. What was used.
When someone does something with another person, a prepositional phrase is sometimes used.
- The baker prepared the desserts with her assistant. With whom
One way of expressing when an event happens is with a prepositional phrase.
- My match will start after the lunch break. When (in relation to an event).
- .The play will begin at exactly six o’clock. When exactly
- We can discuss it in the morning. When generally.
However, not every expression of time is a prepositional phrase. Sometimes adverbs are used to tell when something happens.
- We’ll be studying compound adjectives tomorrow. Adverb
- Dad bought the milk yesterday morning. Adverbial phrase
When we specify exactly where something is, we almost always use prepositional phrases.
- The sugar is in the top left cupboard.
- You’ll get your receipt at the register.
- The spare key is hidden under the doormat.
Additionally, action verbs often use prepositional phrases to indicate precise directions.
- Mary decided to go to the market.
- The lights turn on when you walk into the room.
- To win the race, runners have to jump over every hurdle.
Reasons for activities can also be expressed with prepositional phrases.
- I went to the supermarket for milk and cereal. What for.
- Steven studied all night for the big test. Why.
Among the many other relationships which prepositional phrases can express, below are just a few examples.
- Tomorrow we’ll play the first game of the 2016 season. Possession
- Except when I fell as a baby, I’ve never broken a bone. Qualification
- It’s very difficult to write in Shakespeare’s style. Specification
- The cup is full of tea. Containment
- My car is made out of carbon fiber. Composition
Common to all of the many uses of prepositional phrases is this: a preposition expresses how its object relates to the rest of the sentence. Therefore, prepositions are some of the most common words in English.
5. How to Write with Prepositional Phrases
a. Sentence Structure
In ordinary sentences, prepositional phrases come after the main verb. Consider the following:
To the bank she went.
In Standard English grammar, this sentence is incorrect; it must be rewritten as
She went to the bank.
However, prepositional phrases that indicate general conditions are not always placed at the end of a clause. In certain cases, they can also be placed at the beginning of a sentence. In these cases, they are separated from the main clause by a comma.
- At home, I eat in my kitchen. Place
- In the morning, I like to wake up slowly. Time
- Between you and me, I really don’t like his attitude. Circumstances
- After everything you’ve been through, I don’t blame you. Circumstances
When talking about a specific instance, however, prepositional phrases cannot begin sentences.
- She likes him for his personality. Reason why
- We’re going to the city. Where to
- They cook dinner with their parents. With whom
In these sentences, placing the prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence would be grammatically incorrect.
b. Combining Phrases
Prepositional phrases can be placed one after another to provide additional information. For example:
She went to the bank with the paycheck.
Usually, when prepositional phrases are combined in this way, each can apply to the main clause independently. In these cases, the sentence can be rewritten as two sentences without affecting the meaning:
She went to the bank. She went with the paycheck.
Sometimes, however, one prepositional phrase is embedded in another:
She left with the paycheck for her brother.
In this case, the paycheck for her brother is a single noun phrase. This sentence cannot be rewritten as two separate sentences without affecting meaning:
She left with the paycheck. She left for her brother.
In the latter case, separating the noun phrase into two parts changes the meaning. It’s important to identify when a prepositional phrase (like for her brother) is an integral part of a larger noun phrase.
c. Split Prepositional Phrases
When a preposition is used in a question, or when the object of a preposition is a question word (what, where, when, how, why), the preposition will sometimes come at the end of the sentence.
What did you do that for?
It depends on what you mix the flour with.
There is a long history in English of prepositions ending sentences. Over the years, some people have tried to change the way English grammar works by saying that prepositions should never end sentences. However, there is no real rule against this; as long as the meaning of a sentence is clear, splitting a preposition from its object is totally acceptable.
6. How to Avoid Mistakes with Prepositional Phrases
a. Infinitives are not Prepositional Phrases
Infinitives and prepositional phrases often appear to be identical. However, an infinitive is the basic form of a verb which is not connected to the subject of a sentence. In English, infinitives are formed by combining the word to and the stem of a verb. For example:
It’s easy to bake a cake.
In this example, to bake does not have a subject. Generally, an infinitive is an activity or process—in this case, baking. So, although there is a preposition (to), there is no prepositional phrase.
- I like to swim in my pool in the summer.
- Let us know when you’re ready to leave.
- She wants to make her dad a cake for his birthday.
Like many other words, to can be used in different situations as different parts of speech. Although to is often used as a preposition (as in, She went to the bank), it is also used to form infinitives.
b. Phrasal Verbs are not Prepositional Phrases
Some verbs have a specific meaning when combined with a certain preposition. These multi-word verbs are called phrasal verbs. Although the two are similar, phrasal verbs should not be confused with prepositional phrases. Below are some examples of phrasal verbs:
- She and I get along very well.
- It’s better to say you don’t know than to make up an answer.
- The business partners entered into an agreement.
But sometimes the line between a phrasal verb and a prepositional phrase is unclear:
- Even before it cooled down, she bit into the pizza.
- I changed into new clothes when I got home.
- Dan walked along the street and whistled.
- A burglar broke into the vacant building.
As is true for many grammatical categories, there is overlap between phrasal verbs and prepositional phrases which sometimes makes it impossible to tell them apart. In general, if a verb changes its meaning completely when it’s combined with a certain preposition, it’s probably a phrasal verb. When a verb and a preposition both maintain their original meaning, the combination is probably a prepositional phrase.