What is a Preposition?

Brad Smith


I'm the creator of this site (Grammar Gang). I'm also the founder of Codeless, a long-form content creation company that's been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, and hundreds more.

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Brad Smith

A Preposition is a word that links a noun or pronoun with other elements of a sentence. These are short words that usually come before a noun or pronoun and hook it up with the verb, object, adjective, or other parts of the sentence.

Sometimes it also connects two different sentences or clauses that don’t look relevant if they come separately.

Some of the most common prepositions that we include in almost all of our sentences are on, in, for, from, by, up, of, across, down, at, around, before, after, behind, out, under, with, etc. The list goes on and on!

Let’s dig a little deeper and see how these tiny guys define the relationship of noun or pronoun with other parts of a sentence.

Preposition Examples

Look at the following sentences:

“He was dancing on the table”.

“I would like to have a Coke with french fries”.

“Jason will meet me at 4:30 pm”.

“She brought this gift for me”.

“I will leave for school after mom finishes preparing my meal.

Now, let’s break some of these instances down to understand how preposition functions. Take the first example:

“He was dancing on the table”.

In this sentence, the word ‘on’ is relating the noun ‘table’ with the verb ‘dancing’ and telling the readers where the action is taking place.

Similarly, in the last instance, ‘after’ is connecting two different sentences – “I will leave for school” and “mom finishes preparing my meal”.

Just like these two samples, the preposition is working as a tiny drop of glue in the rest of examples jointing the noun or pronoun that follows it with the other parts of the sentences.

Types of Preposition

There are three types of Preposition – Preposition of Time, Preposition of Place, and Preposition of Direction – with each category having a specific job to perform in a sentence.

1. Preposition of Time

Preposition of Time has the responsibility to indicate when something has occurred, will occur, or occurs.

Time preposition includes words like ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘about’, etc. And these words usually appear just before or after the unit of time used in the sentence. For example:

  • They’re hosting a party on the 4th of July.
  • Meet me at 4 ‘o’clock.
  • The project will complete in 2020.
  • They built this house before World War 2.
  • Sarah is planning to visit her grandma on Monday.
  • He can finish a long-form article within six hours.
  • All the italicized words are preposition of time.

Now, you might be wondering – “five different prepositions for denoting time”? Which one should I use where?

Well, you can follow a general rule according to which:

Years, months, centuries, seasons, and two sessions of the day – morning and evening are preceded by the preposition ‘In’.

For example:

  • We are going for a vacation in summers.
  • I was born in 1997.
  • The world saw a great emperor in the fourth century.
  • I have my judo classes in the morning.
  • Christmas comes in December.

For particular days or holidays, dates, and all the days of a week are denoted by ‘on’.

For example:

  • Will you be present here on Monday?
  • Let’s go hiking on Independence Day.
  • We started this company on 5th of January 1997.

And for times, festivals, and the other two sessions of a day – noon and night, use ‘at’.

For example:

  • Let’s go for a walk at night.
  • I met him at the New Year Eve last year.
  • I will have to work even at Christmas.

And at last, you already know what before and after mean, right? They also refer to a time when something happened but specifically uses another even to describe it. For example:

  • She and her brother are twins, but she born before her brother.
  • We got independence after World War 2.

Some other words that act as Preposition of Time:

  • We have to cover the distance within two hours.
  • I usually take about half an hour to get ready for office.
  • It was around 5 ‘O’Clock when the road accident happened.
  • We’ll wait till Jean arrives.
  • I’m going to learn a new language during the holidays.

2. Preposition of Place

Okay, this is going to be tricky. It seems we have the same set of words – on, in, and at – featuring for Preposition of Place as we saw in Preposition of Time.

But once again, we have specific guidelines on how to use each one of them properly to avoid any mishap.

However, before that, it’s important to know what Preposition of Place does. These are used to indicate the position of something. For example:

  • The bat is on the rack.
  • The cat is under the table.
  • We are in the city of lights.
  • I’m going to meet him at the conference.

Now, the wait is over. Let’s talk about where on, in, and at should be placed at.

If something is in contact with a surface, we refer it by using the on.

For example:

  • We are standing on a plane surface.
  • Paintings are hanging on the wall.
  • She wants to print the Statue of Liberty on her t-shirt.
  • I drew a diagram on paper. (We also use on to refer something printed on a piece of paper.)

If you want to signify something which is inside or within a specific boundary (includes anything), we use ‘in’.

For example:

  • Most of my relatives live in Europe.
  • I’m going to see Jason who is in hospital.
  • We planted roses and sunflowers in our garden.
  • What’s in your head?

And finally, at is used to refer something that is in a specific place.

  • All the C-Level executives are at the coffee shop.
  • Look who has come at your doorstep?
  • They’re partying at the Truck Bar.

Apart from ‘on’, ‘in’, and ‘at’, we have some other pronouns that can be categorized as Preposition of Place, like ‘under’, ‘inside’, ‘outside’, ‘below’, ‘above’, ‘over’, etc.

  • Take everyone inside the house.
  • Harry is resting under the tree.
  • We have a coffee shop just outside our office.
  • There’s a beautiful temple over there.

3. Preposition of Movement or Direction

Preposition of Movement refers to the change in motion of something or someone. It also refers to the direction of that motion, that’s why many Grammar pundits call it Preposition of Direction, too.

While the previous two types of prepositions are mostly depended on three words (on, in, and at), you have plenty of options to choose from under the Preposition of Movement. However, the most common preposition in this group is ‘to’.

  • She is going to a club.
  • Mom told the kids to go to their beds.
  • Preposition of Movement refers to the change in motion in a Noun.
  • I assigned the most challenging task to you.
  • This train goes from Canada to the USA.

Apart from ‘to’, Preposition of Movement includes some other words like ‘across’, ‘through’, ‘into’, ‘down’, ‘over’, etc.

Though all these words are quite similar to each other, they also have individual meanings and are used to describe different types of movements.

For example, ‘through’ is used to refer to move in one side and out of the other side.

  • The stone went through the glass door.
  • He is going through a tough time.
  • The bullet went through his hand.

‘Into’ means entering inside something or looking at something from outside.

  • We are walking into the control room.
  • Miley looked into the room.

‘Across’ indicates moving from one end to another.

  • Alex is planning to travel across the globe with his girlfriend.
  • They sail across the lake.
  • In this race, the participants will run across the city.

And finally, words like up, down, over, around, etc. refers to the direction of motion.

  • The army marched down the road.
  • He will climb up the highest mountain in this country.
  • Pearls were scattered all around her place.
  • The only way to reach his village is to fly over the mountain.

How to use Preposition correctly

To be honest, prepositions are quite abstract in nature, and that’s why English grammar provides no specific set of rules to guide the writers on how to use these connectors systematically.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can use preposition according to your convenience. You still need to keep the following four things in mind before you insert a preposition in your next sentence.

Here they are:

1. A preposition is followed by a Noun

When you break the word ‘preposition’, you get ‘pre’ + ‘position’ which means ‘to be positioned before’.

And it becomes more apparent when you take into account its definition (at the beginning of this post).

A preposition is almost always followed by a Noun to describe what relationship it shares with the other part of the sentence. Consider these examples:

  • Every Friday, we go to the club.
  • The party was organized for the winning team.
  • Dimas is the brother of Cass.
  • See you at the movie theater.

After every preposition – to, for, of, at – we have a Noun following them, like club, team, Cass, and theater.

However, does it mean prepositions don’t go well with anything other than Nouns?

Absolutely not. Besides Noun, the only member that follows a preposition, is Pronoun. But there’s a small twist in it.

What’s that? Well, this is what the second rule talks about…

2. It’s always followed by the object form of a pronoun

Whenever a pronoun comes after a preposition, it’s called the ‘preposition object’. And since it’s an ‘object’, it should always be in its object form (him, her, you, their, me, us).

Using the subject form of pronoun (she, he, they, we) as a proposition object can lead to embarrassing situations.

For example:

Incorrect: I gave it to her.

Correct: I gave it to him.

Incorrect: Lita was waiting for she.

Correct: Lita was waiting for her.

Incorrect: This sculpture is made by we.

Correct: This sculpture is made by us.

Correct: Everything belongs to you. (The object form of ‘You’ is you).

3. It’s okay to end a sentence with a Preposition

Yes, it might contradict the first rule that says a proposition almost always follows a Noun (or pronoun), but that’s why I used the terms ‘almost always’.

Because many a time, a sentence could end with a proposition. And though it would irk many grammar purists, it’s perfectly fine to write sentences like this as long as you’re not finishing a sentence with a preposition just for the sake of it.

For example:

  • Correct: I want a manager whom I can depend on.
  • Correct: This is exactly what I was looking for.
  • Correct: What are you looking at?
  • Correct: I don’t know what matter they’re talking about.
  • Incorrect: Where are you going to? (Unnecessary addition of ‘to’)

4. Preposition never comes just before a verb

It might be a shocker for you, but it’s a universal truth that a verb can never be the object of a preposition.

But wait, what about sentences like these:

  • I love to dance.
  • Use this pen to write your next novel.
  • I bought a pair of shoes for playing soccer.

You might argue, these sentences have verbs following the prepositions, but the reality is not as simple as it looks.

In the first and second example, ‘to dance’ and ‘to write’, are infinitive verbs. And as you know, an infinitive verb always starts with ‘to’. So, there’s no preposition at all in the first two examples.

In the third example, ‘playing’ is a gerund. A gerund is made by adding ‘ing’ to the base form of a verb (play + ing = playing) and works as a Noun.

So, technically the third sentence has a noun following the preposition ‘for’ because the word ‘playing’ says what the shoes are for. It doesn’t explicitly suggest that the act of playing is happening.

Thus, we can conclude that a preposition can be followed by a gerund but never by a verb.

Common mistakes while using prepositions

Sure, prepositions are small words, but since there are no specific rules about how to use these tiny guys correctly; writers often stumble upon mistakes that can make their readers go from Aha! to oh crap!

So, if you want to escape such embarrassing situations, take a look at some of the most common mistakes we commit while using prepositions.

1. In, into, and in to

Even the most experienced writers sometimes fall into the trap of these three words.

Even though they seem identical, the purpose of using these words is slightly different from each other.

While ‘in’ refers to anything that is within a particular boundary, ‘into’ means entering or looking somewhere from outside. ‘In to’, on the other hand, is a two-word phrase where ‘in’ acts as an adverb.

Here a few examples to see how these words actually work in a sentence:

  • All the details are safe in my file.
  • She walked into the room.
  • We came in to watch your show.

2. Different from vs. different than

Though it’s not as big of an issue to follow the word ‘different’ with the preposition ‘than’, it’s much better to replace ‘different than’ with ‘different from’.

For example, instead of writing “you are different than your brother”, write “you are different from your brother”.

3. Like vs. as

Since both the words have almost the same meaning, it’s common for writers to interchange ‘like’ and ‘as’ in their writings.

But ‘like’ means ‘similar’ or ‘similar to something’ and it should always be followed by a Noun, pronoun, or noun phrase, not by a verb or subject. For example:

  • Incorrect: He sprints like Usain Bolt does.
  • Correct: He sprints like Usain Bolt.

In situations, where a verb or subject is involved, use ‘as’, ‘as if’, the way, etc. Like:

  • Incorrect: He sprints like Usain Bolt does.
  • Correct: He sprints the way Usain Bolt does.
  • Incorrect: Do like I say.
  • Correct: Do as I say.
  • Incorrect: They’re working like they’re tired.
  • Correct: They’re working as if they’re tired.

4. On, Upon, and Up on

Writers always get double-minded while choosing between ‘on’, ‘upon’, and ‘up on’. To clarify, ‘on’ and ‘upon’ means the same; it’s just that ‘upon’ is a more formal variant of ‘on’.

On the other hand, ‘up on’ is a two-word phrase where ‘on’ is an adverb and it means to stay updated on something. See, this is how you should use these words:

  • Put the cup on the table.
  • Based upon her verdict, we choose plan ‘B’.
  • Keep me up on the latest development of the project.

5. Senior, junior, inferior, superior, prefer, preferable, prior, etc. must be followed by to, not than

Even though the above words indirectly compare two individuals or things, ‘to’ is the correct preposition that should follow these words; not ‘than’. For example:

Incorrect: Russell is senior than Jane.

Correct: Russell is senior to Jane.

Incorrect: This book is inferior than the previous one.

Correct: This book is inferior to the previous one.

Incorrect: I would prefer having ice cream than coffee.

Correct: I would prefer having ice cream to coffee.

6. At vs. In

Both ‘at’ and ‘in’ are preposition of place, but while ‘in’ refers to a larger place, ‘at’ is used to point a more specific location. For example:

  • I live at street no. 8 in Cape Town.
  • We are at the Mahatma Gandhi Hall in Mandela building.
  • They’re waiting for us at biker’s point, but we are stuck in traffic.

That brings us to the end of today’s preposition class.

In this post, we learned what preposition is and how it works. After that we discussed its three different types that refer to time, place, and movement respectively, and also talked about how to use them properly.

And finally, we went through some common errors most of the writers does and also saw the correct form so that we don’t repeat those mistakes in our writing.