How to Use Prepositional Phrases
by Owen Fourie
In Part Three, we looked at verb phrases, infinitive phrases, and adverbial phrases.
In this part of our study, we’ll focus on only one kind of phrase.
The Prepositional Phrase
A preposition is described as a function word. On its own, it seems to have little value as you will see in this short list of prepositions:
about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, for, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, over.
These words require other words to follow them. When that happens, the value of a preposition will be appreciated. Prepositions are essential words that often indicate space-time relationships.
A preposition is followed by its object–either a noun or a pronoun. A preposition and its object form a prepositional phrase.
A prepositional phrase can include adjectives describing the object of the preposition.
Here are some examples of prepositional phrases:
Note the preposition, any adjective (including the definite article, the), and the object of the preposition.
- above the tree
- across the turbulent river
- after nine
- at the party
- before sunset
- behind the deserted house
- beneath the mattress
- down the road
- during the discussion
- for its hazardousness
- from Canterbury
- inside the old house
- in the morning
- into the stormy sea
- near the shore
- onto the jagged rock
- under the bed
A prepositional phrase can act as an adjective modifying a noun. It can also act as an adverb modifying a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.
In the following examples, the prepositional phrase is italicized.
Prepositional phrases acting adjectivally
- The girls at the party mentioned that the deserted house would be demolished. (modifies the noun girls);
- The field behind the deserted house will be sold soon. (modifies the noun field);
- The musty odor inside the old house troubled the visitors. (modifies the noun odor);
- The house near the shore needs many repairs. (modifies the noun house)
Prepositional phrases acting adverbially
- The men finished their rescue work before sunset. (modifying the verb finished; finished when?);
- That river is notorious for its hazardousness. (modifying the predicate adjective notorious; why or how is it notorious?);
- The jagged rocks made him steer the boat carefully for safe passage. (modifying the adverb carefully)
These are the most common and basic functions of prepositional phrases.
Other functions of prepositional phrases
You will find other functions ascribed to prepositional phrases. Sometimes, if you look carefully, some of those other functions can be seen to be adjectival or adverbial.
Let’s look at some examples of these other functions. The prepositional phrase is in italics.
Prepositional phrase as subject
- After nine will be the best time to call me.
- Under the bed is a good place to keep the exerciser.
In these two examples, the prepositional phrases are acting as subjects. Ask
- When will be the best time to call you?
- Where should I keep the exerciser?
The answers–the prepositional phrases–are adverbial.
For the following functions, one example for each will be enough. A question will follow to find out whether the phrase is adverbial or adjectival. The question will be based on the word in boldface.
Prepositional phrase as subject complement
In this example, the prepositional phrase acts as a subject complement after the linking or copulative verb, is.
- The most convenient time for me is in the morning.
- What is the most convenient time for you? The answer–the prepositional phrase–describes the convenient time and is adjectival.
Prepositional phrase as direct object
In this example, the prepositional phrase acts as a direct object.
- They will dig behind the deserted house.
- Where will they dig? The answer is adverbial.
Prepositional phrase as object complement
In this example, the prepositional phrase acts as an object complement following and describing the direct object.
- I prefer my time of the day, before sunset.
- What is your time of the day? The answer is adjectival.
The possessive adjectives my and your are italicized here for emphasis.
In Part Five, we’ll finish looking at prepositional phrases and this series will end with a consideration of the absolute phrase.
Are there aspects of the prepositional phrase mentioned here that you find difficult to identify? If so, which are they and what confuses you? What are your particular struggles with English Grammar? If you need help with any grammar problem, ask here. Do you have any useful insights? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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