Prepositions: How to Understand What Prepositions Are Doing

How to Understand What Prepositions Are Doing

by Owen Fourie

As you become more familiar with prepositions and choose them correctly, it would be good to understand what they are doing in any sentence.

Prepositional phrases help prepositions to be meaningful and functional. On their own, prepositions are simply words looking for something to do.

A preposition needs an object—a noun or a pronoun. Together, a preposition and a noun (or a pronoun) form a prepositional phrase. If the object is modified, it will make the prepositional phrase longer.

Preposition Determiner Modifier Object of Preposition Prepositional Phrase
about kangaroos about kangaroos
above suspicion above suspicion
among three people among three people
in the band in the band
in the black shorts in the black shorts
beyond my wildest dreams beyond my wildest dreams

What does a prepositional phrase do in a sentence?

It can function as an adverb or as an adjective or as a nominal.

  • As an adverb, it is modifying the verb in a sentence as it answers questions such as How? When? Where?
  • As an adjective, it is modifying a noun in a sentence as it defines which person or animal or thing is in mind.
  • As a nominal, it is functioning as a noun following a form of the verb-to-be: am, are, is, was, were …
Prepositional Phrases Function as Adverbs
They sailed against the tide.

How did they sail? Against the tide.

Adverbial phrase modifying sailed.

He walked into the room.

Where did he walk? Into the room.

Adverbial phrase modifying walked.

It rained from three o’clock.

When did it rain? From three o’clock.

Adverbial phrase modifying rained.

Prepositional Phrases Function as Adjectives
He prodded the ice beneath the snow.

Which ice did he prod? Beneath the snow.

Adjectival phrase modifying ice.

The rioters blocked the alley between the two buildings.

Which alley did they block? Between the two buildings.

Adjectival phrase modifying alley.

The children heard the sound of thunder.

Which sound did they hear? Of thunder.

Adjectival phrase modifying sound.

Prepositional Phrases Function as Nominals
The boy is about seven years old.

That man is a trustworthy person who is above suspicion.

The biscuits are inside that tin.

The Dead Sea is below sea level.

The new logs are in the fireplace.

The benefits are beyond my wildest dreams.

Don’t overuse prepositions in your writing

Do not write like this:

I had not thought much about that old haunted house near the graveyard, in the forest, across the river, round the bend of the gravel road, over the county line, after the tiny church, until my car stalled opposite it, in the moonlight, at midnight one night, and I found myself staring in disbelief at the apparitions that seemed to move around the house, through its walls and above it.

This is prepositional overload!

The information in this article should give you a better grasp of the grammatical function of prepositional phrases.


Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are you struggling with prepositions or any other aspect of grammar and correct usage? Ask here for clarification.

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