Pesky Prepositions

(This post originally appeared Jan. 2014)

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Prepositions are important structural words that create a relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of a sentence, expressing a relationship between time, space, and other senses. Prepositions are one of those parts of speech that garner little attention, but can cause all sorts of trouble, especially for English language learners.  We say we are at a café to visit a friend who was in the hospital. We watch a show on TV but at a movie theater. They sit on the couch, while he sits in the chair, but she lies in bed!

Below is a list of some of the most commonly used prepositions:

about, above, after, against, along, among, around, as, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, despite, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, out, over, past, since, through, to, toward, under, until, up, upon, with, without.

What makes prepositions so confusing is that many prepositions have a wide range of meaning, depending on how they are used in a sentence. Note in the following example how English uses in and on:

The apples are in the bowl.
The apples are on the table.
I spilled apple juice on my dress.

Many languages don’t use prepositions at all, and some languages, such as Spanish, would use the same preposition (en) in all of the previous examples.

I learned to remember space-related prepositions by thinking about what a squirrel can do to a tree. A squirrel can go
around a tree
behind a tree.
below a tree.
beneath a tree.
in a tree.
onto a tree.
over a tree.
toward a tree.
up a tree.
under a tree.

In the squirrel examples above, the preposition shows the relationship between the squirrel and the tree (object of the preposition).

The squirrel prepositions are, as noted, space-related prepositions, as they show the object (tree) in relation to space. Prepositions can relate to time, place, and movement.

Prepositions for Time:

In                     In January, 1978, the Midwest suffered a terrible blizzard.

On                   On Monday, we’ll begin a new unit.

At                    At midnight, the ball will drop in Times Square.

For                  He waiting in line for two hours.

Since             I haven’t been back home since 2008.

When referring to a month or year, we don’t use “on,” unless the specific day is given:

On January 21, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Prepositions for Place

In                     We were riding in the car.

On                   Leave the book on the table.

At                    She is waiting at the entrance.
You could also ride on a car, but that means you would literally be on the outside of the car:
The beauty queen rode on the car [in the parade].

You could leave the book in the table, if you are placing it inside a drawer:
Leave the book in the table[’s drawer].

You could be waiting in the entrance, which would mean you are inside:
She is waiting in the [theater’s main] entrance.


Prepositions for Movement

To                   He went to the movie. OR
He came from the movie.

Into                 She stepped into the bathtub. OR
She stepped out of the bathtub.

Toward         The baby crawled toward his mother. OR
The baby crawled away from his mother.

One of the most common problems with prepositions occurs when prepositional phrases are strung together to create an overly complicated sentence:

It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats (from writing.wisc.edu).

Too many prepositional phrases create plodding prose and a confusing sentence. Can you identify the subject and verb in the previous sentence? I’m not sure I can!

Revised: People with heart problems should avoid high fat foods.

The subject (people) and verb (should avoid) are much clearer in the revised example. The best writing is concise writing, and prepositional phrases often are crutches we lean on a bit too heavily that create wordiness and confusion.

Placement of Prepositions

You probably learned in high school that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of those grammar rules that cause disagreement among grammarians. It’s not always so easy to rearrange the concluding preposition to another place in the sentence. Try rewording the following sentences to move the concluding preposition:

1)    The dress had not been paid for.

2)    Tell him he is taking too much on.

3)    We are such stuff as dreams are made of. (William Shakespeare)

4)    All words are pegs to hang ideas on. (Henry Ward Beecher)

5)    That is nonsense up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

As you can see, even some of our great writers break the rule. Consider this rule a writer’s choice. Whether one considers it right or wrong is a debate we won’t go into. (!)

This is only a tiny bit of all there is to know about prepositions and their uses. As you can see, it takes patience and practice.

Practice!
Fill-in each sentence with a preposition from the list.

Along; down; across; beyond; underneath; after; against

1. I looked ______________________ the hill at the many houses below.

2. Make sure to check ______________________ your bed for your shoes.

3. __________________ we go to the movies, we will go eat at a restaurant.

4. I leaned ______________________ the side of the wall.

5. Can you walk ______________________ with me as we go shopping?

6. If you look ______________________ those trees, you will see a cabin.

7. We will walk _______________________ the street when it is safe. (from englishlinx.com)

Some examples from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/prepositions.htm

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