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Concourse 2

Prepositions and prepositional phrases


There is a simpler introduction to prepositions on the initial plus training pages (new tab).  You may like to review that before going on.
If you returning for another look at this guide or are looking for something in particular, here's an index of its contents.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Definitions Simple and complex prepositions Object or complement? Case Word-class borderlines
BrE vs. AmE Ellipsis of the preposition Ordering Functions As adjuncts
As disjuncts and conjuncts As noun post-modifiers As subjects, objects and complements As verb / adjective post-modifiers Patterns of meaning
Modifying the phrases Ordering of phrases Time phrases Postpositions in English Other languages

Otherwise, take it as it comes.



Prepositions belong to a closed class of words which means that we do not readily add new ones although some which were quite common, such as betwixt, afore, athwart etc., fall out of fashion and are rarely used.
It is, therefore, in theory at least, possible to construct an exhaustive list of all the prepositions in English.  In theory that is because

  1. Some prepositions are very rare or archaic and often virtually unknown to the modern user of English such as ahind, alongst, afore etc. which will occur rarely in a restricted set of literary texts.
  2. Definitions vary slightly and some will include, for example, prefixes such as post-, anti- and pre- which sometimes stand alone as prepositions.
  3. Some are poetic only, such as ere, o'er, unto, midst etc.
  4. Dialects of English contain prepositions such as afront, allow, ayond etc. which are rare or unknown in many settings.

If you would like a list of prepositions over 200 prepositions in English, follow the link to the PDF document at the end or click here.

For most teaching purposes at lower levels at least, this list is probably enough:

next to
out of

A prepositional phrase, which is mostly the concern of this guide consists of the preposition itself (the head) followed by its complement.
Therefore, a prepositional phrase has two parts: the preposition and the preposition complement.  Overwhelmingly, in English, the prepositional head of the phrase precedes the complement (or object as we shall see) but that is not invariably the case.

think Task:
There are five kinds of prepositional complement.  Can you identify them in the following examples?  The preposition is in black and the complement is in this colour.
Click here for the answers and some other examples when you have tried this.
  1. He drives past my house most mornings
  2. From what you have told me, it is very strange.
  3. Before opening the letter, he took a deep breath.
  4. From now to eternity.
  5. He moved over to under the light.

We cannot have a that-clause or a to-infinitive clause as the complement of a preposition so we can't say, e.g.
    *I understand from that he told me
    *He came in by to break open the window
Other languages do things differently and that accounts for a good deal of error.  Simply telling learners this little fact can be most helpful.

In all of the above, the examples contain the standard word ordering of English: preposition followed by the noun phrase.
That is, of course, why the words are labelled prepositions.
English has, in fact, some postpositions which perform the same linking function but follow the noun phrase.
See below for examples of their use.



Simple and complex prepositions

Most prepositions are single words like of, in, at, by, for, with etc. but some, called complex prepositions, consist of phrases in themselves and they include except for, with the exception of, in spite of, with reference to, apart from etc.
A little care is needed to analyse these as complex prepositions which are followed by a complement rather than conflating part of the preposition with the complement.
These are not prepositional phrases (although they are phrases) when they stand alone because the complement is missing.  They are best considered as multi-word prepositions in themselves.



A slightly different way to analyse prepositional phrases

Some functional approaches to grammar analysis take a slightly different view of the prepositional phrase.

The analysis is that most phrases can be described as an expanded version of the Head of the phrase.
For example, in this sentence:
    The cautious old man spoke slightly hesitantly at the meeting
the noun phrase, The cautious old man, can be analysed as the Head (man) being expanded by the pre-modifying adjectives and the determiner.
In the same way, the verb + adverb phrase, spoke slightly hesitantly, can be analysed as the Head (the verb spoke) expanded by the post-modifying adverbs.  Strictly, a verb phrase contains only verb forms, of course, but this matters little here.
However, the prepositional phrase cannot be analysed in exactly the same way because the phrase at the meeting is not a simple expansion of the Head (at) but may be better considered as the preposition plus its object (the meeting).  Calling the complement the object also makes sense in terms of case because, as we saw above, any pronoun in the complement is in the object, accusative, case which is why we say:
    He walked towards me
    *He walked towards I.
In this way, prepositional phrases function more like small clauses than phrases per se.

We do not follow that analysis here, staying with the word complement to refer to the object of the preposition but it is worth explaining, albeit briefly.

An argument against calling the parts which follow a preposition in a phrase objects rather than complements is that they need not always be nominal items although they act that way in terms of grammatical function.  A number of other word and phrase-class members can act as the complement of prepositions, as we saw above and they include adverbs, non-finite verb forms, wh-clauses, adjectives (when nominalised), pronouns and other prepositional phrases.




Case refers to the relationship between elements of a clause or sentence.  For example, we saw above that we say:
    between you and me
    *between you and I
because in English all prepositions are followed by the object case and, for the first-person pronoun in English, that is the pronoun me.
Similarly, we can have a sentence such as:
    She gave me them
in which we have another use of me but this time it is actually a dative case pronoun because it represents an indirect object.  The word them is the direct object case of the pronoun they.  English does not change the form of the pronoun me to show whether it is the direct or the indirect object.  That can be done, however, with a prepositional phrase so we can equally have:
    She gave them to me
with the indirect object shifted to the end and preceded by a preposition.
In other languages, German for example, the pronoun is marked differently for the object, accusative, case and the dative, indirect object, case.  So for example, in German:
    She saw me
translates as
    Sie sah mich
    She gave me it
    Sie gab es mir
with two pronouns (mich and mir) signalling the cases (accusative and dative, respectively).
In other languages, life becomes considerably more complicated.

English is not a highly inflected language so does not exhibit many changes to words to show case.  English overwhelmingly indicates the relationships in syntax by prepositional phrases rather than changes to the nouns, determiners and adjectives etc.
So, for example:
    I hit it with a rock
we have what in some languages would be called an instrumental case but English makes no change to the rock to indicate this, preferring to use the preposition with to signal that the rock was the instrument I used.
We can also have what is called an ablative case as in, e.g.:
    She walked away from the station
and English signals this with the complex preposition away from but other languages (Finnish, Gujurati, Basque and many more, including Turkish) make changes to the noun to indicate the relationship between she and the station.
There are many cases which can be signalled in a variety of languages and for a much fuller run down of the possibilities, see the guide to case, linked below.
It is enough here to understand that learners whose first languages have well-developed case structures will, accordingly, have fewer prepositional structures because the relationships are signalled via inflexions rather than through the use of function words.
Such languages include:
    Czech, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Slovak, Tamil, Turkish and Ukrainian.
Speakers of those languages will encounter quite serious problems understanding and using prepositional phrases in English because, failing a clear case structure, the language has developed a much more complex system of prepositional structures to signal case relationships.
Many other languages do not signal case through inflexion and have ways akin to English to show relationships (or do it via affixation, often suffixation).  These include:
    The Chinese languages, Romance languages, Swedish, Dutch, South-East Asian languages and many African languages.
Despite having parallel systems, naturally, exactly how the relationships are signalled will not be parallel and difficulties of choice of the appropriate preposition remain.

We saw above that English has two ways to signal the dative or indirect object: by word order as in:
    She read the children a story
in which the indirect object precedes the direct object, and with a prepositional phrase as in:
    She read a story to the children
where we use the preposition to to show the indirect object.
And the language also has two ways of signally the genitive: by inflexion as in:
    It's the company's policy
where we use the 's inflexion, and with a prepositional phrase as in:
    It's the policy of the company.
using the preposition of.
Most languages settle on one way or another and it is confusing for learners to have to make such choices when they use English.



Blurring at the edges: borderline cases of word class

Some words can only function as prepositions and present no serious comprehension or use issues.  They include:
against, among, at, bar, barring, beside, despite, during, except, following, from, including, into, like, minus, of, per, plus, to, toward(s), upon, via and with.


Multiple word-class membership

Other words with dual or triple class membership can be problematic.  The first group includes most prepositions not in the list above because simply removing the complement results in an adverbial use.  It may be argued that the ellipsis of the complement leaves the prepositional nature of the word intact.  Compare, for example:
    They met outside the pub
which is prepositional and
    We can't smoke inside
which is adverbial, with
    He was still walking up the mountain while they were already walking down
where the use of up is prepositional (with its complement / object the mountain) but in which the use of down is either prepositional (with an implied complement of it or the mountain) or adverbial (with no complement).

We have, therefore:

  1. Words which can function both as prepositions and adverbs, for example:
    • They came aboard (adverb)
      They aren't aboard the boat (preposition)
    • She drove past (adverb)
      She drove past my house (preposition)
  2. Words which can function as prepositions, adverbs or conjunctions:
    • They had met before (adverb)
      They spoke before the meeting (preposition)
      They spoke before the chairman opened the meeting (conjunction)
    • I haven't seen him since (adverb)
      She has waited since the summer (preposition)
      I'll tell you, since you ask (conjunction)
  3. Words which can function as prepositions or conjunctions:
    • I bought it for $400 (preposition)
      You can't speak yet for questions are only allowed at the end (conjunction)
    • She dressed as Cleopatra (preposition)
      She asked as she needed to know the answer (conjunction)
    • She smiled like a cat (preposition)
      They did it like they were told (conjunction)
  4. A few words which span other word classes:
    • He walked through the park (preposition)
      I'm not through yet (adjective)
    • The opposite meaning (adjective)
      Leave it on the opposite side (adjective)
      I placed it opposite the mirror (preposition)
    • It was an inside job (adjective)
      I left it inside (adverb)
      The inside is painted red (noun)
      It's inside the house (preposition)
    • She came to a like conclusion (adjective)
      There was a fish-like smell in the house (adverb or adjective-forming suffix)
      We put like with like (noun)
      It looked just like it did in the brochure (conjunction)
      I had a house like the one over there (preposition)
      I like that (verb)
    • She walked out into the garden (adverb, followed by a prepositional phrase)
      That's right out in the country (modified adverb followed by a prepositional phrase)
      They walked out the door (preposition [informal])
      There's no answer so I guess she's out (adjective, [predicative only])
      The truth came out later (adverb)
      The truth was out (adjective)
      We need an out (informal noun)
      It's snowing out (adverb, for outside)
      The candidate was outed as a liar (verb)

Borderline cases

Some words lie on the borderline between prepositions proper and conjunctions, adjectives or adverbs and in these cases, the distinctions can become blurred.

in that
looks like a preposition phrase and, what's more, like an exception because we have in followed by a that-clause as in, for example:
    She has an advantage, in that she speaks both languages
It is, in fact, a rather unusual conjunction meaning because or for the following reason and is better analysed that way.
but / bar
but is usually analysed as a conjunction and that is its function in, for example:
    I called but you were out
However, the word also has prepositional characteristics and can be followed by an infinitive as in, for example:
    He did nothing but work
and it can be followed by a noun phrase or pronoun quite normally as a preposition in, for example:
    Everyone came but the Smiths
    Nobody wants to go but her
We saw above that prepositions are followed by pronouns in the object case and here the distinction becomes even more blurred because
    Nobody but her knew the truth
is acceptable and prepositional although
    Nobody but she knew the truth
is also acceptable but not prepositional because the pronoun is in the subject case.  Compare:
    Nobody knew the truth but she did
The preposition bar follows the same patterns and also means except for as in, for example:
    It's all over bar the shouting
    All the people bar Mike and John were satisfied
functions as a conjunction in, for example:
    He spends more than he can afford
    It's more expensive than I hoped

but can also be prepositional as in, for example:
    She is taller than me
    It's more than 5 miles from here
The prepositional use allows an infinitive complement, with and without to as in, for example:
    It is better to call by than to 'phone
    I'd prefer to stay than go
also functions as a conjunction in for example:
    I wanted to come except I had no money
    It doesn't hurt except when I'm very tired

in which case it means roughly but, and in common with but can also be used prepositionally in, for example:
    Everyone one came except Julian
and, like but, can be followed by an infinitive
    She does little except sleep
as well (as)
is an adverb (an additive adverbial adjunct to be precise) in many circumstances as in, for example:
    It snowed a little and rained as well
and can also function as what is sometimes called a quasi-coordinating conjunction in, for example:
    He writes novels as well as contributing to the newspaper
but the phrase is also prepositional in, for example:
    I'll paint the door as well as the window frames
is a subordinating conjunction as in:
    He came home because it was raining
but combined with of it is a complex preposition as in:
    He came home because of the rain
is an adverb conjunct in for example:
    I don't want to go swimming.  Instead, I'll stay in and read.
but combined with of, the word is a preposition as in
    I'll have the fish instead of the meat course
is, of course, a preposition in something like:
    The library is near the cinema
but it has adjectival characteristics, too, because it can be made comparative and superlative as in:
    The pub is nearer your house than mine
    The house nearest the cinema is hers

and can also be used predicatively and attributively as adjectives usually can as in:
    You place is nearer
    The nearest pub is just over there

The prepositions close and like share some of these characteristics.
this word is a predicative-only adjective but it governs the noun in a preposition-like fashion in, e.g.:
    It is (well) worth visiting the museum
    It is not worth my time
    It's not worth $400


union jack us

British (BrE) and American (AmE) usage

There are some differences between British and American usage in this area.  Here's the summary:

at vs. on the weekend
AmE speakers prefer on the weekend, BrE speakers prefer at the weekend
from ... to / until vs. through
to express the beginning and end of a period of time, AmE speakers prefer through as in, e.g.:
    The shop is open Monday through Saturday
but BrE speakers prefer either from ... to or from ...until / till as in:
    The shop is open from Monday to Saturday
    The shop is open from Monday until Saturday
in vs. for ages
After a negative, AmE speakers prefer in + the time period:
    I haven't seen the movie in years
BrE speakers prefer for + the time period:
    I haven't see the film for years
in vs. on the street
AmE users prefer on:
    They live on Washington Street
BrE users prefer in:
    They live in Nelson Street
out and out of
Both varieties use out informally as a preposition rather than out of but AmE also more frequently uses out adverbially as a synonym for outside:
AmE will usually prefer:
    He threw it out the window
    It's raining out

BrE will usually prefer:
    He threw it out of the window
    It's raining outside



Ellipting prepositions

Usually prepositions are required because they form the head of the prepositional phrase, without which it is not possible to understand what is meant.  However, there are some verbs whose meaning incorporates the meaning of the preposition.  In these cases, we can ellipt the preposition and make the erstwhile complement the direct object of the verb.  Like this:

He ran in the race He ran the race
The horse jumped / leapt over the fence The horse jumped / leapt the fence
She fled from the party She fled the party
They drilled through the wall They drilled the wall
They climbed up the hill The climbed the hill
Mary hopped over the wall Mary hopped the wall
I joined in the game I joined the game
I rowed across the river I rowed the river
She penetrated into the secret room She penetrated the secret room
The wind pierced through his jacket The wind pierced his jacket
We have turned round a corner We have turned a corner

Many languages do not allow the ellipsis of a preposition in this way and learners may have some difficulty comprehending clauses like the ones on the right.
Other languages may allow the ellipsis of an understood preposition but allow verbs to be transitive which are, in English, stubbornly intransitive or demand a preposition at all times when they are transitive.  This results in errors such as:
    She arrived the hotel
    They participated the meeting
    It consists two parts
    That depends the weather


We saw above that in sluiced wh-clauses, the preposition and the whole complement other than the wh-word may be ellipted as in:
    She was speaking to someone outside but I don't know who


Prepositions are always followed by their complements – right?

Click here when you have an answer.


What do prepositional phrases do?

Here are 8 example sentences.  Decide what each prepositional phrase is doing and then click on the eye open for some comments.

She was walking through the park
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is an adjunct (i.e., it's an adverbial which is integral to the clause).  It is probably the most common prepositional use.
She arrived after six o'clock
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is also an adjunct.  It differs from the first example because that refers to space and this one refers to time.
To her astonishment, the shop replaced the shoes immediately
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is a disjunct (i.e., it refers to the whole clause which follows, not just the verb phrase, and is not integral to the clause itself).
In addition, I'd like to ask for a small pay rise
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is a conjunct, linking the previous sentence with this one.
The man in the garden is his father-in-law
eye open
This is sometimes called a reduced relative clause (i.e., reduced from The man who is in the garden) but, in fact, it can more simply be seen as a post-modifier of the noun man.
It all depends on the weather
eye open
The verb here is a prepositional verb (depend on) and the prepositional phrase is its complement.  In such cases, the preposition is governed by the verb rather than by its noun complement (or object).
I am angry at your suggestion
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is the complement of an adjective.
The guide to adjectives, linked at the end, contains more detail.
I cleaned under the car
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is the object of the verb clean and is nominalised.
Behind the garage needs clearing
eye open
Here the prepositional phrase is the subject of the verb need and is also nominalised.

Reference to things like adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts in the following may be ignored if they make no sense to you.  For more in the area, see the guide to adverbials.



Prepositional phrases as adjuncts

It is often averred that prepositions in English are wholly unpredictable and obscure.  While it is true that it is difficult to say what all prepositions 'mean', there are some useful patterns we can use to teach the area.
Can you classify these?  As before, click on the eye open for an answer.

Because of the rain, we stayed in
For fear of the consequences, he told nobody
On account of the difficulty, he decided not to bother
eye open
All these contain the notion of reason or motive.  Note that of is the most common preposition in the phrase although out of (in, e.g., out of a sense of justice) is a possible but rarer form.
He only works for the money
They all ran for the ball at the same time
She did it for the good of the village
They queued for a bus
He took the train to London
He gave it to me
eye open
Prepositional phrases with for often express the notions of purpose or destination.  If you can rephrase the sentence using in order to plus a verb, then the preposition is usually for.
Prepositional phrases with to express a similar notion but here it is either the target or the recipient.  Target may also be signalled by at as in, e.g.,
He threw it at me.
Note the difference between at (a target) and to (a recipient) in:
He threw the ball at me / Screamed at me
He threw the ball to me / Screamed to me
She shouted with great passion
She spoke like a teacher
He worked in an orderly way

eye open
Prepositional phrases with with, like and in (nearly always + adjective + manner or way) express the notion of in the manner of.
Note the difference between like (in the manner of) and as (in the role of) in, e.g.,
She dressed as Marie Antoinette for the party
She dressed like Marie Antoinette.)
We went by tram
He left by the back door
They came by car
eye open
Prepositional phrases which express means nearly always contain by.  Such phrases are not always used for transport but that is frequent and a helpful conceptual tag (providing you don't get too involved in the irregular on foot).
The by + participle form, e.g.,
breaking the lock, he managed to escape
is common to describe means.
She opened her talk with an anecdote
They broke the door down with an axe
He wrote with a special pen
eye open
Prepositional phrases which express the instrument rather than the means nearly always contain with.  It is important to distinguish this and the last category as confusion is often the source of errors such as *They came with the bus, *He wrote by a pencil.
Both by and with can be the agent of a passive but that with is usually confined to inanimate objects.  For example,
The fire was put out by the neighbours
The fire was put out with water.
It is possible, and quite common, to combine by and with in the same clause:
He broke the lock by hitting it with an axe.
Note, too, that by is sometimes replaced by at in the passive sense: She was astonished at / by his rudeness.
He came from London
She spoke from the audience
eye open
The converse of phrases with to and for is often a phrase with from denoting source or origin.
He came at six
She spoke before thinking
eye open
These are simple prepositional phrases of time, aka, temporal prepositional phrases and a common familiar use of the items.
He put the case in the corner
She sat at the top table
eye open
These are examples of spatial uses also called place phrases.



Prepositional phrases as disjuncts


and conjuncts

Here's another table to treat in the same way.
In spite of the rain, we went out
Despite the consequences, he carried on
Notwithstanding the difficulty, he decided to do it
eye open
The most common of these is, of course, in spite of but the other two mean the same although they are more formal.  They all carry the notion of concession.  (Conjunctions like although can be used in a similar way but these examples are prepositional phrases, not conjunctions.)
With regard to the money, a refund is due
As for the children, they are happy in the sunshine
With reference to your letter, I am writing to explain
Regarding your question, the manager will respond
eye open
There are various levels of formality here but the notion is the same for all – reference to something.  These examples are disjuncts (hence the separating commas) but they can be used to post-modify in, e.g.,
What answer did you get regarding your question?
It's all over bar the shouting
Everyone is here except the teacher
Everyone but the teacher is here
Except for the teacher, everyone is here
Apart from the teacher, everyone is here
But for the teacher, I couldn't have learned it
eye open
These all carry the notion of exception.
Prepositional phrases with bar, except and but are post-modifiers here.
Except for and apart from are both disjuncts.  The other examples here are actually adjuncts.
Notice that but for is slightly different.  It carries the notion of conditionality (If it hadn't been for ...)
Notice, too, that but is not a conjunction in this use.
To my amazement, he agreed
To her horror, the road was blocked
To their joy, the boss conceded
eye open
To introduces many expressions of reaction.
These are all attitudinal or content disjuncts and are often more formal ways of saying, e.g., amazingly, horrifyingly, happily etc.



Prepositional phrases as noun post-modifiers

This is another large category but, in fact, only three prepositions are common in these phrases.  They all express the notion of having an attribute.  Some examples:

  1. The woman with red hair
  2. A man of honour
  3. A girl without humour
  4. A complaint about the food
  5. His success in passing the examination

Prepositional phrases with without and with are frequently a form of relative clause.  Compare
    A man with a grudge
    A man who has a grudge
    A woman without any money
    A woman who has no money.
You can't do that with phrases with of (and they are less common).  The of-phrases are normally only used with abstract properties so we can have
    A woman of great determination
but not
    *A woman of beautiful hands etc.

Many other types of prepositional phrases can act as post-modifiers, often stating where or when something is.  For example:

  1. The house on the corner
  2. The meeting on Monday
  3. The girl in the queue

There are some prepositions which appear to be verbs because they end in -ing, but aren't.  They include:
concerning, considering, excepting, excluding, failing, following, including, notwithstanding, pending, regarding, respecting and saving.
They are troublesome because they occur in constructions which look like reduced relative clauses but for which there is no corresponding -ing form in the relative clause or for which no relative clause at all can be constructed with a parallel meaning.
For example:

The confusion arises because formulations using non-finite clauses to post-modify the noun such as

can all be rephrased as relative clauses although the -ing form of these verbs is not always available because the use is stative not dynamic:

For more, see the links at the end.


Constituents of phrases

We need to be slightly careful in deciding what exactly a prepositional phrase is modifying or our hearers can misinterpret what we mean.
For example, the sentence:
    Jane spoke to the man behind the bar
can be understood in two ways, like this:
In the first sentence, the verb is being post-modified and tells us where she spoke so the modified verb phrase is:
    spoke ... behind the bar
In the second sentence, the noun is being post-modified and the object noun phrase is:
    the man behind the bar
When the first sense is intended, speakers will insert a slight pause between the man and behind the bar, making two tone units each with a stressed syllable: the man and behind the bar.
When the second sense is intended, the man behind the bar will constitute a single tone unit with one stressed syllable.  (For more, see the links at the end.)
In writing, to avoid ambiguity the sentence may be rephrased as a cleft:
    It was behind the bar that Jane spoke to the man
    It was the man behind the bar that Jane spoke to
or the prepositional phrase is moved to make the arrangement of phrases clear:
    Behind the bar Jane spoke to the man.



Prepositional phrases as subjects and objects of verbs or copula complements

under the stairs is a good place  

Prepositional phrases may act in place of a noun phrase to perform various syntactical roles.  In these cases, the phrase is itself nominalised.  Such uses are often considered quite informal and some will reject them as ill-formed clauses.
We find, however:

Prepositional phrase as the subject of the verb
For example in:
    In the garden is the best place for that
    Behind that door needs painting

the prepositional phrases are the subjects of the verbs.
Prepositional phrase as the direct object of the verb
For example, in:
    I should clean behind the fridge
    We need to heat in the study

We should be slightly careful here, because often the phrase is being used in a normal location function so, for example:
    She remained in her bed
is not a case of a nominalised prepositional phrase because the verb is intransitive and takes no object and:
    She wrote in the study
is also just a potentially transitive verb being used intransitively with the prepositional phrase acting as a simple adverbial adjunct.  The object of that verb has to be something like the letter of course.
The simplest way to check is to form the passive and then we see that we can have:
    Behind the fridge was cleaned
but no such passive clause can be constructed from
    She wrote in the study.
Prepositional phrases as complements of copular verbs
For example, in:
    She seemed at home
    The were in the house
    They appeared under pressure

and so on, the prepositional phrase is acting as the subject complement of the verbs seem, be and appear, respectively.
They can also, more rarely, form object complements of quasi-copular verbs as in:
    She appointed him to the job.


Prepositional phrases as verb and adjective complements

made of wool  

Prepositional phrases can appear as the complements of verbs and adjectives.  For example:

  1. Complementing the verb:
        The table is made of mahogany
        We argued about the cost
  2. Complementing the adjective:
        I am lousy at sports
        She is reliant on your help

Some verbs are described as having dependent prepositions or as being prepositional verbs (much the same thing) and they are analysed more thoroughly in the guide to multi-word verbs, linked below.

Adjectives and nouns requiring adverbial complementation

  1. Some adjectives, such as tantamount, dependent, and reliant require a prepositional phrase complement.  So, for example, we cannot have:
        *It is tantamount
        *She is dependent
        *It is reliant

    and we need a prepositional-phrase complement for each adjective and that might be:
        ... to a resignation
        ... on her parents
        ... on the weather

    There is more on this in the guide to adjectives, linked below.
  2. Some verbs, notably:
    keep, lay, place, plonk, position, put, rest, set, site, situate, stay, stick, stuff
    also require adverbial complementation (often a prepositional phrase) when they are used.  So, for example, we cannot allow:
        *I put it
        *I rested the torch
        *She stuck the suitcase

    without saying where and that often means using a prepositional phrase (or an adverb such as outside) to form an acceptable clause with, e.g.:
        ... under the stairs
        ... on the work surface
        ... under the bed

    For obvious reasons, such verbs are often referred to as PP verbs.


Patterns of meaning

Because adjectives and nouns are often formed from verbs, it is useful to address these three types of complementation together.  There are similarities concerning which preposition will be used as a complement and that is helpful to learners.

Here's a table of what is meant but you can see that some cells have no contents bar participles in -ing because no other obvious adjective parallel is available.

Preposition Verb Adjective Noun   Preposition Verb Adjective Noun
about argue
of approve
at connive
Participles in -ing only connivance
on bear
for account
to admit
from abstain
Participles in -ing only abstention
with acquaint
in participate

In the guide to multi-word verbs, a distinction is drawn between transitive uses, which usually take the prepositional phrase, and intransitive uses, when the preposition is omitted.

Unfortunately, there are few rules or even recognisable tendencies which can help learner decide which preposition is appropriate in each case so the expressions are most usefully treated as language chunks and learnt as single lexemes.

Many adjectives do not appear in the table above because they are not derived from verbs.  They do, however, often have derived nouns or are themselves derived from nouns which take the same prepositional complements.  (This is not a fully reliable rule because there are rogues such as be fond of vs. have a fondness for which do not conform.)
The guide to adjectives, linked below, lists nine prepositions which are commonly used in the complementation of adjectives.  Briefly, these are:

Preposition Adjective Noun   Preposition Adjective Noun
about glad, knowledgeable, mad, annoyed, pleased, angry, happy etc., e.g.:
I was happy about the news
happiness, knowledge, annoyance etc., e.g.:
His knowledge about the subject is immense
of accused, afraid, certain, conscious, aware, glad, scared, terrified, fond, tired etc., e.g.:
I am afraid of snakes
fear, accusation, certainty, awareness, terror etc., e.g.:
The accusation of fraud was proven
at alarmed, amused, terrible, awful, hopeless, surprised, dreadful, clever, good etc., e.g.:
He's clever at twisting the argument
alarm, amusement, terror, surprise etc., e.g.:
His amusement at my embarrassment was obvious
on intent, severe, based, set, dependent, reliant, keen etc., e.g.:
We are reliant on the money
dependency, reliance, keenness etc., e.g.:
Her reliance on my help was mistaken
The preposition upon is more formal in many circumstances and not possible for some adjectives (such as keen).  Using on is always secure.
for embarrassed, bad, hopeful, optimistic, renowned, sorry, known, responsible etc., e.g.:
The town is known for its crime
These uses include the notion of something being unusual as in, e.g.:
It's small for an estate car
That's not bad for a man
embarrassment, hope, optimism, sorrow, responsibility etc., e.g.:
Your responsibility is for the whole project
to opposed, averse, subject, liable, answerable, inclined etc., e.g.:
He is liable to a fine
opposition, aversion, liability, inclination etc., e.g.:
My aversion to flying means I can't go
from These are often participle adjectives and include: secured, defended, kept, exhausted, sheltered, protected, different, (in)distinguishable, tired etc., e.g.:
She is indistinguishable from her sister
security, defence, shelter, protection etc., e.g.:
The plants need protection from the wind
with angry, busy, comfortable, compatible, impatient, familiar, content, furious, identical, sick, uneasy, unhappy, annoyed, bored, delighted, obsessed, pleased, satisfied etc., e.g.:
This is not compatible with the policy
anger, compatibility, impatience, uneasiness, annoyance, delight etc., e.g.:
Her impatience with delay was legendary
in experienced, justified, persistent, (un)successful, interested, mistaken etc., e.g.:
They were successful in their examinations
experience, justification, persistence, success, interest etc., e.g.:
Your interest in grammar is obvious

If you would like to have those two tables as a PDF document, use the link at the end.



Modifying prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases can themselves be modified with adverbial phrases.  The modification always precedes the phrase.
Prepositional phrases of time and place are most commonly (i.e., not solely) the ones we can modify.
The modifiers are adverbials (and nearly always simple adverbs) and serve to amplify or tone down the phrase.  They are, in other words, intensifiers.
Some are colloquial (almost slang) while others, such as directly are neutral in style.
For example:

  1. His explanation went completely over my head
  2. His house is far off the road
  3. They came dead on time
  4. They were very nearly on time
  5. The bullet went clean / clear through the window
  6. It's directly / almost / exactly opposite the station
  7. It's right out in the country
  8. The meeting started shortly after 6 o'clock
  9. The film started long after the advertised time
  10. They didn't arrive until way after midnight
  11. The man spoke purely / solely / only / just / exclusively / merely in his own interests
  12. That's a comment very much out of order here
  13. The came well before time
  14. We looked all over the town for a replacement
  15. My house is right behind the school
  16. It was smack dab in the middle of the garden
  17. She hit him slap bang in the middle of his body
  18. His shop was bang slap in the centre of the town
  19. He planted the seeds wide apart from the others
  20. That's wide of the mark

The last example is a fixed idiom with wide deriving from archery.  In this case, it is adjectival rather than adverbial but behaves a little like a prepositional phrase in itself.  Compare, e.g.:
    His estimate was wide of the real cost
    The actual quantity was wide of the amount we wanted

Semantically, there are some limitations with these modifiers as some, such as completely cannot be used for place but are reserved for direction.  Here's a run-down of what is allowed:

Phrase type Modifiers Examples
Direction / Movement completely
clean / clear
over the top
through the glass
Position (central) slap bang
bang slap
smack dab
in the centre
in the middle
on top of
Position far
right out
away from the truth
next to the house
opposite the pub
beyond the end of the road
along the river
to the left
in the suburbs
Time dead
on time
before the beginning
after the end
behind the times
beyond midnight
All types (very) nearly
opposite the church
after six o'clock
in the road

Some of the examples, such as far away from the truth, over the top and behind the times are or can be metaphorical in nature but that does not affect the main issues.

Limiters such as purely, solely, only, just, exclusively, merely can modify many abstract prepositional phrases.  For example:
    She may leave only after the end of the examination time
    This door is exclusively for members of the club
    This is merely for example

They cannot modify time and place phrases so we do not find:
    *That is merely in the middle
    *They came solely at 6


Standing alone, very does not modify prepositional phrases in English (although an equivalent word sometimes does in other languages) so we do not allow, e.g.:
    *He was very at the top
However, in combination with nearly, which itself can modify almost any prepositional phrase, the adverb is frequently an additional modifier so we can allow, e.g.:
    He was (very) nearly at the top
    My house is (very) nearly opposite the church
    They arrived (very) nearly at seven

When very is the only modifier, it is not modifying the prepositional phrase but an adjective or adverb in the normal way, for example:
    The house is very close to the park
    He walked very far from the village

The adverb almost has two functions.  It can stand alone as a prepositional phrase modifier with few restrictions so we get:
    It is almost at the end
    Almost opposite the church is a cinema

    He waited until almost at the end of the week
and it can tone down the sense of another modifier as in, e.g.:
    She stood almost directly on the edge of the cliff
    She hit the target almost exactly in the middle
    The lorry crashed almost clean through the wall

There is a slightly grey area here.
Prepositional phrases are, as we see above, normally only pre-modified.  However, in sentences such as:
    The science of black holes is over my head entirely.
it appears that the prepositional phrase over my head is being post-modified by the intensifying adverb entirely.
The argument here is that it isn't only the prepositional phrase that is being modified but the whole preceding clause that is being modified by the adverb (entirely is, in other words, a disjunct or sentence adverbial).
The same consideration applies to, for example:
    Wholly, in my opinion, this is the wrong way to proceed.



The position of prepositional phrases

Syntactically, where prepositional phrases come in a clause depends to a large extent on the function they are performing.
They can come at the beginning, in the middle or at the end (called initial, medial and final positions in the trade).
Here's how it usually works:

  1. Prepositional phrases modifying nouns
    1. These normally post-modify and follow the noun phrase immediately as in, for example:
          The man in the corner
      The cars on the road
          The bus at ten past six
    2. When there are two or more noun phrases, the prepositional phrases modify them in the same way, i.e., the phrase modifies the immediately preceding noun.  This means that people will understand them that way so, for example:
          The man walking the dog with red hair
      means the dog had red hair but
          The man with red hair walking the dog
      means the man had red hair.
    3. The position of the prepositional phrase can lead, as we saw, to ambiguity.  For example:
          He used the computer at his office
      can mean either
          While he was in his office, he used the computer
          He used the computer which was in his office
      Because the prepositional phrase so strictly follows the noun phrase, the normally interpretation will be the second one.
  2. Prepositional phrases as adverbial adjuncts
    1. When the phrase is modifying the verb and integral to the clause, it usually comes immediately after the verb phrase or its object.  That is its commonly unmarked (i.e., having no special emphasis) position.  Like this:
          She saw him on Saturday at the hotel
      They met outside the cinema on Monday
    2. To deal with the possible ambiguity issue, the prepositional phrase is often moved to the initial or final position as we saw above.  Compare, for example:
          His friends at that time were working
      which could be a phrase modifying the friends (i.e., they were friends then but not now) or an adjunct modifying the verb phrase were working (i.e., telling us when they were working)
          At that time, his friends were working
          His friends were working at that time
      both of which can only be interpreted as prepositional phrases modifying the verb (i.e., adverbial adjuncts) and refer to the time the friends were working.
    3. When they are marked in some way, however, the phrase is often elevated to the initial position.  This is common in written English because the phrase cannot be marked by stress or intonation as it can in spoken texts, so word ordering is the only option.  In writing, the phrase is separated from the rest of the clause by a comma and in speaking, by a slight pause after the phrase.  E.g.:
          At the hotel, she saw him (i.e., nowhere else)
          On Monday, they met (i.e., not on any other day)
    4. When the prepositional phrase is an adjunct very closely connected to the verb as in, e.g., a verb of movement and its destination or a prepositional verb, the prepositional phrase is rarely moved to the initial position unless some heavily marked meaning is intended:
          Mary marked the house on the map
          On the map Mary marked the house
          They jumped over the wall
          Over the wall they jumped
    5. Placing a comma or a pause in spoken language, after the prepositional phrase produces a slightly different meaning:
          Over the wall they jumped
      emphasises what was jumped over
          Over the wall, they jumped
      means that they were already over the wall and then jumped.
    6. The medial position is also possible for adverbial adjunct prepositional phrases but there is a need to be careful to avoid ambiguity and the phrases usually have to be separated by commas or pauses in speaking.  For example:
      1. After the subject:
            Dave, at the moment, is too busy to do it
      2. After the verb phrase and its complement:
            Dave is too busy, at the moment, to do it
      3. After the auxiliary verb or operator
            Dave is, at the moment, too busy to do it
      4. Between the object and its complement:
            Dave did it, on the whole, rather badly
      5. Finally:
            Dave is too busy to do it at the moment
  3. Prepositional phrases as conjuncts
    Because the function of a conjunct is to provide a connection between clauses, the preferred position is the initial one for the second clause or sentence.  We get, for example:
        He refused to come with us.  Without him, we had a lot more fun
        The last pair played very well.  But for that, we would have lost the match
  4. Prepositional phrases as disjuncts
    Disjunct prepositional phrases, expressing the speaker / writer's attitude or a viewpoint, normally come in the initial position but can take the final position.  For example:
        To my disappointment, the weather turned cold and wet
        The weather turned cold and wet, to my disappointment
        From my point of view
    , that's a poor idea
        That's a poor idea, from my point of view
        In the study of language
    , the word 'register' is used in a special sense
        The word 'register' is used in a special sense, in the study of language
  5. Multiple prepositional phrases
    1. When a clause contains more than one adverbial adjunct prepositional phrase, they are usually ordered in relation to how closely connected they are to the verb phrase and its object.  So, for example, we get:
          She spoke to him in French after dinner
      rather than
          She spoke to him after dinner in French
      because the language she spoke in is more closely connected to the verb than the time she did the speaking, or
          He walked across the park in the rain
      rather than
          He walked in the rain across the park
      because where he walked is more closely connected to the verb than the weather conditions.
    2. An alternative positioning is to use one prepositional phrase initially and keep the most closely connected phrase in the final position following the verb phrase and its object, if any, as in:
          After dinner, she spoke to him in French
          In the rain, he walked across the park
    3. When it is unclear which prepositional phrase is more closely connected to the verb phrase, either ordering is allowable so we get:
          She met him at the pub on Thursday
          She met him on Thursday at the pub
      with very little if any change in emphasis and none in meaning.



A note on prepositional time phrases

The general rule is that we use:

There are exceptions, notably at night (reserving in for other parts of the day) and at the weekend.
However, if we use referencing (i.e., deictic) words like next, last, this, after next, before last etc., we can drop the preposition.  We get, therefore, for example

I'm seeing her (the) Monday after next
We met (the) January before last
I'll come next week
I saw him last Thursday
We married that month / year etc.

We also do this when we quantify the noun in some way: e.g.

I take some Mondays off
I work every afternoon
I have a meeting most weeks etc.

Informally, we can also drop the preposition on days of the week: e.g., I'll see you Monday.


Postpositions in English

English, prefers prepositions inasmuch as the head of a phrase is followed by its complement rather than preceded by it.  That is why they are called prepositions, of course.
English does, in fact, have some obvious postpositions which follow rather than precede the noun.  The common five are:

There are six more rarer or idiomatic examples:

There are a few, quite limited, examples of what appear to be postpositions in English.  These kinds of expressions are usually better analysed as either adverbs as in:
    from that day on(wards)
    this time around
or as ellipted complements as in:
    the church opposite (me, you, us, my house etc.)



Other languages: adpositions

No analysis for teaching purposes like this one would be complete without some consideration of how other languages address the issue of saying where and when an event took place or a state existed.  The term to use here is adposition rather than speaking loosely of prepositions as we shall discover.

Overwhelmingly, however, English opts for prepositions and many other languages take the same ordering.
In English we have a phrase such as on the table.  This will translate into a variety of languages in the same ordering so we have, e.g.:

Swedish: på bordet French: sur la table German: auf dem Tisch
Spanish: en la mesa Bulgarian: на масата Greek: πάνω στο τραπέζι
Polish: na stole Russian: на столе Swahili: juu ya meza
Scots Gaelic: air a 'bhòrd Albanian: mbi tavolinë Igbo: ke okpokoro

and so on.  In all these languages, and hundreds more, the adpositional phrase is left headed.  That is to say that the head of the phrase, what we can call in English and these languages the preposition, lies to the left.
Most South-East Asian languages, such as Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Khmer are also left headed.

That is not the only way to order the elements and many languages are right headed (or head final) so the adposition lies to the right with the noun phrase complement or object preceding it.  They are postpositions, in other words, like the English ago.
For example:

Basque: mahai gainean Turkish: masanın üstünde Somali: miiska dushiisa
Estonian: laua peal Japanese: テーブルの上に Finnish: pöydällä 
Kasakh: үстелдің үстінде Korean: 책상 위에 Kyrgyz: столдун үстүндө

all of which translate, approximately, as the table on.
Other languages which are right headed include: Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Kannada, Gujarati (and nearly all other Indian languages), many African languages, almost all Austronesian languages and many North and South American languages.

A third way of ordering things is one used by a smaller number of languages, albeit with very large numbers of speakers.  These languages use what is known as circumpositions, splitting the adposition in two with one element preceding the noun phrase and one following it.  Most Chinese languages do this although postpositions are also common and prepositions occur, too, so the languages are often classified as having no canonical or default ordering of the elements.
Circumfixing adpositions is also common in Pashto and other Iranian languages.

Here's a summary:

A rare form of adpositioning is one used by some Austronesian languages in which the particle is placed within the noun phrase itself.  These are, rather obviously, referred to as inpositions.

The implications for learners of non-left-headed-language backgrounds are obvious.


There's a test on much of this.

Related guides
the word-class map for links to guides to the other major word classes
prepositions of place for more on specific groups of prepositions
prepositions of time
other meanings of prepositions for a guide to what prepositions mean when not used for time or place
meaning patterns for a PDF document with the tables of types of complementation above
case for much more on how other languages indicate the relationships signalled in English by prepositional phrases
sentence stress for more on how phrases are stressed
constituents of phrases for more on ambiguity and phrase constituents
ambiguity for more on how prepositional phrases may be sources of ambiguity and disambiguation
modification of nouns for more on modification of noun phrases
modification: essentials the general guide in the initial plus section
post-modification of noun phrases for more on how prepositional and other phrases function to modify or define nouns
pre-modification of noun phrases
adverbials for more on adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
multi-word verbs for more on prepositional verbs or verbs with dependent prepositions
adverbs for more on how and which adverbs function as complements of certain prepositions
adjectives this guide contains more detail about how prepositional phrases act as complements to adjectives
introduction to prepositions for a simpler guide to the area

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Dryer, MS and Haspelmath, M (Eds.), 2013, The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Available online at https://wals.info
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman