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What is a Preposition? | Intermediate

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Prepositions in English are function words that connect to nouns, pronouns, or parts of sentences to one another. They serve as a bridge and express a relationship between words, ideas, or clauses. For example, when you say the house across the street, the preposition “across” connects “house” to “street” and expresses a spatial relationship between them.

English has approximately 150 prepositions that express many different relationships. Some examples of common prepositions include from, of, to, in, on, about, next to, in spite of, and so on.


Video Activity

Watch What are prepositions? (and how to learn them) on YouTube and take good study notes.

Note. You can read this page first or watch the video before reading. It’s up to you.

Examples of Prepositions and Their Relationships

Prepositions express three main relationships: position or place, time or duration, and movement or direction. However prepositions are also used as part of grammatical constructions, which will be discussed later in this lesson.

Prepositions of Position or Place

The prepositions below show relationships of position or space.

  • He keeps his cheap bicycle in the garage but leaves his expensive car on the street.
  • We first met at a convention in San Francisco.
  • There is a park across the street from my house.

Prepositions of Time or Duration

The prepositions below show relationships of time or duration.

  • John goes to work at 6 a.m., but he leaves before 3 p.m.
  • Our plane leaves at 9 p.m. on Monday. We will stay until next week.
  • Professor Ecks has taught this course for 20 years.

Prepositions of Movement or Direction

The prepositions below show relationships of movement or direction.

  • My wallet must have fallen out of my pocket.
  • Jacques is from France.
  • The man ran into the house.

Important Note

Categorizing prepositions as above is quite artificial and does not capture all possible relationships and functions prepositions can have. For example, the prepositions because of and except for do not fit into any of the above categories in the sentences,

  • We stayed home because of the rain.
  • Everyone stayed home except for for Mary.

Prepositions and Grammatical Constructions

This is where prepositions get interesting. Sometimes the only reason you need those prepositions is to make grammatical sentences. This can make learning prepositions difficult. You need to learn these prepositions in the context of the expressions in which they are used.

In these cases, the relationship is not always clear. In the examples below, the different prepositions go with adjectives or verbs to make grammatical sentences:

  • I am interested in sports.
  • I am tired of my job.
  • We can’t agree on a time for the party.
  • I dream of visiting Japan one day.
  • I’ve been thinking about you.
  • The children are fond of uncle Ecks.

In the last example, note that you use the “of” in the expression to be fond + of. However, you need no preposition in “The children like uncle Ecks” even though it has a nearly identical meaning.

One-Word, Double and Complex Prepositions

English has one-word prepositions, double prepositions, and complex prepositions. Double prepositions use more than one preposition together such as along with, out of, and without. Complex prepositions combine prepositions and non-prepostions such as next to, on top of, close to, and due to.

These prepositions have different names, but they all work the same way.

Learning Prepositions

It is often best to learn prepositions as they appear in sentences. You can try to memorize long lists of prepositions and expressions with their prepositions, but that can be an inefficient use of your time.

Of course, as with anything worth learning, it takes a lot of practice. When you hear or read a preposition in an expression many times, the correct preposition will eventually “sound natural” to you.

As you practice the language, notice prepositions that are part of unexpected grammatical structures. Perhaps underline them while reading or add them to a list or flash cards.

Keeping in mind that even native speakers are sometimes unsure what the correct preposition is in a sentence, do your best to learn prepositions, try not to obsess over them all the time.

For a complete, basic lesson on learning prepositions, see 5 tips to learn prepositions effectively.

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