We commonly use prepositions to show a relationship in space or time or a logical relationship between two or more people, places or things. Prepositions are most commonly followed by a noun phrase or pronoun (underlined):
The last time I saw him he was walking downthe road.
I’ll meet you in the cafe oppositethe cinema.
It was difficult to sleep duringthe flight.
It was the worst storm sincethe 1980s.
Give that tome.
There are over 100 prepositions in English. The most common single-word prepositions are:
Although most prepositions are single words, some pairs and groups of words operate like single prepositions:
They were unable to attend because of the bad weather in Ireland.
Jack’ll be playing in the team in place of me.
In addition to getting a large fine, both brothers were put in prison for three months.
I always get nervous when I have to speak in front of an audience.
We estimate that there’ll be up to 10,000 people at the concert.
The most common prepositions that consist of groups of words are:
in addition to
in front of
on account of
as well as
in place of
on top of
in spite of
Prepositions or conjunctions?
Some words which are prepositions also function as conjunctions. When we use a preposition that is followed by a clause, it is functioning as a conjunction; when we use a preposition that is followed by a noun phrase, it stays as a preposition. Among the most common are after, as, before, since, until:
After I’d met him last night, I texted his sister at once. (conjunction)
After the meeting last night, I texted his sister at once. (preposition)
We’ll just have to wait until they decide what to do. (conjunction)
Okay, we’ll wait here until six o’clock. (preposition)
Prepositions or adverbs?
Several words which are prepositions also belong to the word class of adverbs. These include: about, across, around, before, beyond, in, inside, near, opposite, outside, past, round, through, under, up, within:
There were lots of people waiting for a taxi outside the club. (preposition)
Where’s your cat?
The gallery is opposite the Natural History Museum. (preposition)
Can you tell me where the bus station is?
It’s over there, just opposite. (adverb)
Prepositions and abstract meanings
Common prepositions that show relationships of space often have abstract as well as concrete meanings.
That map you need is behind the filing cabinet. (basic spatial sense or position)
Everyone is behind the government. (behind = gives support)
Beyond the hotel were beautiful mountains. (basic spatial sense or position)
Learning Chinese in a year was beyond them all. (beyond = too difficult for)
Some common prepositions such as at, in and on can have abstract meanings:
I think you will both need to discuss the problem in private.
All three singers were dressed in black.
You now have the next day at leisure and can do whatever you wish.
Our dog stays on guard all night, even when he’s sleeping!
Prepositions and adjectives
We commonly use prepositions after adjectives. Here are the most common adjective + preposition patterns.
They weren’t aware of the time.
Is French very different from Spanish?
This picture is similar to the one in our living room.
What’s wrong with Isabelle?
We were really surprised at the price of food in restaurants on our holiday.
Lots of people are interested in Grand Prix racing but I’m not.
Exercise is good for everyone.
We’re really excited about our trip to Argentina.
*We can also say surprisedby
Prepositions and nouns
Many nouns have particular prepositions which normally follow them:
There’s been a large increase in the price of petrol.
Traditional grammatical rules say that we should not have a preposition at the end of a clause or sentence. However, we sometimes do separate a preposition from the words which follow it (its complement). This is called preposition stranding, and it is common in informal styles:
She was someone to whom he could talk. (formal)
She was someone who he could talk to. (informal)
Which room are they having breakfast in? (informal)
In which room are they having breakfast? (formal)
If we leave out words that are clear from the context (ellipsis), we can use wh-questions with a wh-word + stranded preposition: