26) The preposition

The preposition

1) What is a preposition?

A preposition is a word which links a noun, or pronoun, and some other word in a sentence. We can think of them as being pre-positioned as they are often found behind the noun, or pronoun. However, we must be careful because this is not always the case, as we will see later.

Many prepositions are related to location, or space. For example:

The troll hides below the bridge.

Here the preposition ‘below’ is linking the verb ‘hides’ to the noun ‘the bridge’ providing us with a location for the hiding.

Prepositions can also relate to time. For example:

She spoke before him.

Here the preposition ‘before’ is linking the verb ‘spoke’ with the pronoun ‘him.’ Other prepositions relating to time are ‘after’, ‘during’ and ‘following’.

There are also some instances where prepositions help to link a noun or pronoun which is an instrument to the verb, and, consequently, signifies that this noun or pronoun is the instrument which created the subject. For example:

1984 was written by George Orwell.

Here, the preposition ‘by’ is linking the verb ‘written’ to the noun ‘George Orwell’, and showing us that George Orwell is the instrument which wrote the subject. Two others which have a similar function are ‘through’ and and ‘with’ as in:

The building was faulty through neglect.

He was awoken with cold water.

Another important function of prepositions is linking to a pronoun or noun which tells us the manner in which something happened, as in:

He punched the locker with delight.

Here the preposition ‘with’ is linking the noun ‘locker’ with the noun ‘delight’ to show us the manner in which something was done. This is important in this sentence because without it we might assume the punching of the locker was something done in anger; knowing the manner changes the whole meaning of the action.

Another common use of prepositions is to show the purpose of something as in:

He is studying for the exam.

Here the preposition ‘for’ is linking the present participle verb form ‘studying’ with the noun phrase ‘the exam’ to give us the purpose of the studying.

2) Should a sentence ever end with a preposition?

So far all of the examples have shown the preposition positioned before the noun or pronoun it is linking to the other word, or phrase. There is some debate around whether it is OK to ever end a sentence with a preposition, with many being taught at school that it is never OK. Because of this, when writing something very formal, like some form of application, it is probably smart to avoid ending sentences with prepositions. However, in other circumstances, where the risks are lower, it is certainly up for debate. Let’s look at some examples:

They hate being laughed at.

This sentence uses the preposition ‘at’ at the end of the sentence. We could rewrite it like this:

They hate people laughing at them.

As I alluded to earlier, In a formal situation, to be on the safe side, it is probably better to rewrite the sentence like this to prevent the preposition being on the end. However, from what I have read, many feel it is OK to use either construction.

Another example is:

She wanted someone she could rely on.

We could re-write this as:

She wanted someone on whom she could rely.

A final example is:

I want a friend to exercise with.

Here we have the infinitive form ‘to exercise’ followed by the preposition ‘with’. We could re-write this as:

I want a friend with whom I can exercise.

Note that we use ‘whom’ here rather than ‘who’ because ‘whom’ comes after the preposition ‘with’ making it the object of the preposition, and, therefore, in the objective case. What exactly is the object of the preposition? Let’s look at that next.

3) The object of a preposition is in the objective case

The noun, or pronoun, which the preposition is linking with the other word is the object of the preposition. If we remember back to objects, they are the element of the sentence which is having something done to it by the subject, and are most often seen within the predicate of the sentence. So, for example:

The troll hides below the bridge.

In this sentence, the subject is ‘the troll’ the verb is ‘hides’ the preposition is ‘below’ and the object is ‘the bridge’. ‘The bridge’ is the object because it is having something done to it by the subject (namely, having a troll hide underneath it). Therefore, in this case, ‘the bridge’ is the object of the preposition ‘below’. This means that ‘the bridge’ is in the objective case, which doesn’t lead to any inflection, or change in spelling or form. However, if the object of the preposition was a pronoun, then there would be some difference. For example it would be:

‘The troll hides below him.’ (correct)

not

‘The troll hides below he.’ (incorrect)

As a reference for the objective vs the subjective case, see the table below:

Subjective case Objective case
I me
he him
she her
we us
they them
who whom

Of all of these, it is ‘who’ and ‘whom’ which gets mixed up most. We dealt with that in detail previously when we looked at the direct object of the verb for pronouns, under the objective case, in case for nouns and pronouns. To give one quick example:

He is the person to whom I owe everything.

Here we have the preposition ‘to’ linking the noun phrase ‘the person’ with the object of the preposition pronoun ‘whom’. Note it would be wrong to write:

‘He is the person to who I owe everything.’ (incorrect)

‘Who’ is wrong here because this the object of the preposition, and therefore in the objective case.

 4) Prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases are the entire phrase that begins with the preposition and ends with the noun, or pronoun. For example:

I had dinner with her.

Here the preposition ‘with’ and the noun ‘her’ make up the prepositional phrase ‘with her’. Prepositional phrases usually work as adverbs or adjectives. In this case, the prepositional phrase ‘with her’ is modifying the noun ‘dinner’ by giving us an extra detail about the dinner, making it an adjective.

The basic components of a prepositional phrase are a preposition, an object of the preposition and any modifiers to the object. By modifiers I mean anything which modifies the object, such as the definite article ‘the’ in the noun phrase ‘The man’. The object of a preposition is usually a noun or pronoun. This also means that anything that functions as a noun, or pronoun, can go along with the preposition to make up the prepositional phrase. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Firstly, let’s look at a preposition + a noun to make up a prepositional phrase:

He vomited after lunch.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘after lunch’ is modifying the verb ‘vomited’, therefore it is acting as an adverb. In this case, it is an adverb of time answering the question ‘vomited when?’. It is made up simply of the preposition ‘after’ and the noun ‘lunch’, which is also the object of the preposition.

Now let’s look at the very common preposition + a noun phrase construction:

She left before rush hour.

Here, the prepositional phrase ‘before rush hour’ is modifying the verb ‘left’; therefore, it is acting as an adverb. It is answering the question ‘when did she leave?’. It is made up of the preposition ‘before’ and the noun phrase ‘rush hour’.

The following is an example of a preposition + a noun phrase with a relative clause after it. Before we look at it, a relative clause is a type of dependent/subordinate clause which works to modify a noun. It is underlined in the below example:

His first kiss was on the pier which was lit up by the full moon.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘on the pier’ is modifying the verb ‘was’ making it an adverb. It is an adverb of place, answering the question ‘where was his first kiss?’. We then have the relative clause ‘which was lit up by the full moon’ directly after, working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘the pier’ to give us extra details about it.

One of the important things to remember here is that ‘was’ is being linked to ‘the pier’ via the preposition ‘on’. This preposition creates a bridge between the two that means the underlined relative clause is only working on the words to the right side of the bridge: ‘the pier’. Once one knows that the relative clause can only work on things on this right side of the bridge, it hopefully becomes a bit easier to see that ‘which was lit up by the full moon’ is working as an adjective on the noun phrase ‘the pier’. Prepositions can get confusing at times, but the best thing to do is to look around them and try to work out how they are interacting with the rest of the word classes in the sentence.

Moving on, here is an example of a preposition + a gerund phrase:

He protested against killing innocent people.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘against killing innocent people’. This is an interesting one. Let’s think about the words that follow it. We have already heard that prepositions are always followed by a noun, or a pronoun. However, in this example we have ‘killing’ at the beginning, which may be especially confusing if you have never heard of gerunds (and still potentially confusing even if you have!). In certain circumstances, ‘killing’ can be considered a gerund, which is an ‘ing’ form created from a base verb form – in this case ‘kill’ – which works as a noun. We will deal with them when we look at verbals, once we have finished with prepositions. Gerund phrases are phrases which begin with a gerund and work as a noun. Considering that pronouns can replace nouns, that should mean we can replace ‘killing innocent people’ with a pronoun. Let’s try:

He protested against killing innocent people.

He protested against it.

OK, that works well, even if we need some other context to know what ‘it’ is. So we can think of ‘killing innocent people’ as the object of the preposition and as a noun. Now, the prepositional phrase ‘against killing innocent people’ is modifying the verb ‘protested’, making it an adverb. It doesn’t quite fit any of the adverb types we have talked about, with it really answering the question ‘He protested what?’

An example of a preposition + a pronoun is:

She left before him.

Here the prepositional phrase ‘before him’ is modifying the verb ‘left’ making it an adverb. It is an adverb of time, answering the question ‘left when?’. Note that the pronoun ‘him’ is the object of the preposition, and it is in the objective case (the subjective case would be ‘he’).

An example of a preposition + an adverb phrase is:

He was sick until fairly recently.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘until fairly recently’ working as an adverb by modifying the predicative adjective ‘sick’ by answering the question ‘was sick when?’ This is an interesting one because the object of the preposition is usually a noun or a pronoun, but this time it is the adverb phrase ‘fairly recently’.

Now for an example of a preposition + a prepositional phrase:

Please get my wallet from underneath the newspaper.

Here we have the prepositional phrase ‘from underneath the newspaper’ which is working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘my wallet’ by telling us an extra detail about it. This is an interesting one because it has the preposition ‘from’ then it has the prepositional phrase ‘underneath the newspaper’ as the object of the preposition. This means it has a prepositional phrase (‘underneath the newspaper’) inside a larger prepositional phrase (‘from underneath the newspaper’), which is liable to make my head spin.

4.1 Common errors with prepositional phrases

One error that is easy to make with prepositional phrases is for the verb to not agree with the subject. The agreement of the verb relates to whether the subject is singular or plural. For example:

The flat above us is huge.

In this example, the verb ‘is’ is the singular, first person form of ‘be’. This is correct because the subject in this sentence is ‘The flat above us’, which is singular, and, therefore, needs a singular verb. This would be incorrect if written as:

The flat above us are huge. (incorrect)

The reason this mistake is sometimes made is because the writer mixes up the pronoun at the end of the prepositional phrase with the subject. In this case, the pronoun at the end of the prepositional phrase ‘above us’ is the plural pronoun ‘us’. If we were to look at that as the subject of the verb, then we might make the mistake of using the plural ‘are’ rather than the correct plural ‘is’. Furthermore, If the subject, ‘The flat above us’ was made plural, then ‘are’ would be correct as in:

The flats above us are huge. (correct)

If you are a native English speaker, the sentence ‘The flat above us are huge’ might just sound wrong without you even having to think about it. However, there are some examples where – at least to me – the error isn’t as audibly obvious. For example:

A team of runners are approaching. (incorrect)

What is the subject here? The answer is ‘A team of runners’ which is singular. This is because ‘a team’ is being discussed as one single entity – we explored this concept earlier in collective nouns. And what is the verb? The answer is the plural ‘are’. Therefore, the plural verb ‘are’ is not in agreement with the singular subject ‘A team of runners’. The correct answer is:

A team of runners is approaching. (correct)

I think the error is less obvious for two reasons.

1) ‘A team’ is a collective noun, which is a noun describing a group of things as a single entity.

2) ‘runners’ is plural, which makes it very tempting to use the plural verb.

As is the case with most rules, there are some exceptions to this one. These exceptions are seen when the indefinite pronouns:

‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, and ‘some’

are at the head of the noun phrase which is the subject, just as ‘the team’ was in the earlier example. In such a situation, the object of the preposition (usually the noun/pronoun after it) can change the verb depending on whether it is singular or plural. This is because these indefinite pronouns don’t tell us whether they are singular or plural. Let’s look at some examples of sentences with these pronouns at the head of a subject phrase first as singular, then as plural:

All of the book is written.

All of the books are written.

Note that the subject in the first example us ‘All of the book’ and the subject in the second is ‘All of the books’. In both of these sentences the pronoun ‘all’ doesn’t tell us whether the verb is singular or plural. In the first sentence the object of the preposition, ‘book’, is singular, so the verb is the singular ‘is’, whereas, in the second sentence, the object of the preposition, ‘books’, is plural, so the verb is the plural ‘are’. This is possible because the indefinite pronoun ‘all’ can be used in singular or plural constructions.

5) What is the difference between a conjunction and a preposition?

One difficult question you might be asking yourself, after just learning about conjunctions, is ‘what is the difference between a conjunction and a preposition?’ Well, as we have seen, there are two different types of conjunction

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join, or combine, independent / main clauses that have equal measure as in:

John ate an apple, and Jane ate a pear.

Coordinating conjunctions can’t be prepositions because they aren’t providing a relationship between a noun/pronoun and another word. They simply link the words, rather than telling us the nature of the relationship between them. For example, let’s look at a sentence with a coordinating conjunction and a preposition next to each other:

Coordinating conjunction: ‘John ate an apple, and Jane ate a pear.’

Preposition: ‘The troll hides below the bridge.’

The coordinating conjunction ‘and’ merely links the two sentences together, while the preposition ‘below’ gives us a locational link between the two, and forms the prepositional phrase ‘below the bridge’. This prepositional phrase also works as an adverb modifying the verb ‘hides’, by answering the question ‘the troll hides where?’ How about subordinating conjunctions?

Subordinating conjunctions link a main / independent clause with a dependent / subordinate one as in:

The festival will be great if the locals don’t complain about the noise.

This does provide more than just a simple link, providing a relationship between the two clauses. However, the reason ‘if’ isn’t a preposition here is because it isn’t linking a noun / pronoun with another word. Furthermore, it isn’t forming a phrase which can then work as an adjective, or an adverb. Instead, it is linking a whole clause with another clause, making a subordinate/dependent clause (‘if the locals don’t complain about the noise’) be dependent on a main/independent one (‘the festival will be great’).

Another way of describing this is that in the subordinating conjunction sentence the parts being linked are clauses; therefore, they have a subject and a verb. However, in the preposition sentence, while ‘the troll hides’ has a subject and a verb, it is linked to an object ‘the bridge’ which doesn’t.

Nevertheless, the difference between the two is hazy; so hazy, in fact, that some subordinating conjunctions can actually function as prepositions, including ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘as’, ‘until’ and ‘since’. Let’s compare sentences with them as subordinating conjunctions and as prepositions:

Subordinating conjunction: ‘John ate an apple before Jane ate a pear.’

Preposition: ‘John went home before midnight.’

The reason that ‘before’ is a subordinating conjunction in the first sentence is because it is linking a main (‘John ate an apple’) and a subordinate (‘before Jane ate a pear’) clause. So the first important thing is that it is linking two clauses. In contrast, the preposition doesn’t link two clauses: ‘John went home’ is an independent clause because it is a complete thought and has a subject ‘John’ and a verb ‘went’; however, ‘before midnight’ is not a clause because it doesn’t have that subject-verb relationship. Moreover, the word after the preposition is ‘midnight’ – an object. When the word (in this case ‘before’) is followed by an object, it is a prepositional phrase, and therefore a preposition; in contrast, when the word (‘before’) is followed by a subordinate/dependent clause, it is a subordinating conjunction. Let’s look at a few more examples:

Subordinating conjunction: ‘John ate an apple since Jane ate a pear.’

Preposition: ‘John had been there since Wednesday afternoon.’

In the subordinating conjunction example, ‘John ate an apple’ is a main clause and ‘since Jane ate a pear’ is a subordinate one, meaning a subordinate clause comes after ‘since’ – therefore it is working as a subordinating conjunction. Note that the subordinate clause ‘since Jane ate a pear’ has a subject (Jane) and a verb (ate). In contrast, in the preposition example, ‘John had been there’ is a main clause, but ‘since Wednesday afternoon’ is not a clause – it is a phrase because it doesn’t have a subject-verb relationship, and it is an object of the preposition ‘since; both of these points mean ‘since Wednesday afternoon’ a prepositional phrase, and, therefore, ‘since’ is a preposition.

Here is another example:

Subordinating conjunction: ‘John brought a book as he knew it would be a long journey.’

Preposition: ‘John wrote 500 lines as a punishment for his misbehaviour.’

In the subordinating conjunction example ‘John brought a book’ is a main clause and ‘as he knew it would be a long journey’ is a subordinate clause because of its subject- verb relationships. It has two subject-verb relationships. The first is the subject ‘he’ and the verb ‘knew’, and the second is the subject ‘it’ and the verb phrase ‘would be’. In contrast, in the preposition example, ‘John had been there’ is a main clause, but ‘as a punishment for his misbehaviour’ is not a clause because it doesn’t have a subject-verb relationship. It is actually an example of a prepositional phrase (for his misbehaviour) within a prepositional phrase (as a punishment for his behaviour).

6) Questions

1) Explain what a preposition is.

2) Should a sentence ever end with a preposition?

3) Explain what a prepositional phrase is.

4) What is the difference between a conjunction and a preposition?

That is all for prepositions. Now let’s move on to verbals, next.

NEXT: 27) Verbals

Posted in English Grammar