What Is a Preposition?


When it comes to dealing with the English language, especially for non-English speakers, its numerous little rules can feel confusing to say the least. For example, many people struggle with prepositions. Despite being a crucial part of the language itself, English speaking people tend to have a very limited number of prepositions that they actually use.

Indeed, there are around 150 different prepositions in the English language, but it is unlikely that you will use all of them. You might, though, be intrigued to know that while many prepositions go unused for the majority of speakers, some are among the most popular and commonly used words in the whole language. For example, the words of, in, and to are all known as common examples of prepositions. In this article, we are going to help you work out the answers to the following questions:

  • What is a prepositions?
  • Why do prepositions matter?
  • What type of prepositions are there?
  • What is a preposition versus a postposition?
  • When should you use prepositions?

Movie scene about preposition

What is a preposition?

So, a preposition is a part of the English language that is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a word, or group of words, that are used in conjunction with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.”

So, prepositions are used to try and connect together otherwise terms that might be lacking in any kind of meaningful context to the recipient of the wording. Many times, we will look to use prepositions as a means of trying to connect nouns together to a particular subject or an idea.

For example, let us say that you were in conversation and they asked you why you were not home when they rang your doorbell. You might say something like, “Oh, I went to the shops.” – the “to” here is the preposition; it is connecting the context of the sentence. It tells people who is involved in the conversation (you), and in this context it tells the person you are speaking to where you have gone that day (the store).

However, there are many examples of more advanced prepositions being used – for the most part, though, it will come down to things like those shown already: in, to etc.

For example, let us say someone asks you where you have parked the car when you go to pick them up. You could respond something like: “I have parked the car in front of the trolley.” – this tells the person that you have parked somewhere, with “in front of” doing all of the work as the preposition in this point. Without that information, they might assume you have parked behind the trolleys, or to its side. By saying in front of, they know where to look and where to find you.

Why do prepositions matter?

Put simply, prepositions matter because they give people an opportunity to communicate with you in a way that makes a lot more contextual sense. Instead of just telling someone generic details like “I went out”, you give people more information. This is useful for creating more detailed conversation, for giving people the information they need, and for always making sure you are never needlessly vague and/or ambiguous.

As noted above, prepositions are useful because they allow us to clearly describe what we have been doing, where we are going, and other important factors in detailing our lives. Also, prepositions matter because they can offer clarity and turn an otherwise ambiguous statement into something that can be far more factual and easier to use as evidence, information, or even can help to improve education. With so many different prepositions, though, you might not be sure when you are using prepositions and what this actually means for you.

Some of the most common prepositions that you might use on any given day include terms like among and behind, beside and between, from and in/into to near or toward. Basically, if you want to give someone an indication of a location, a destination, or even a place in time then you might need to get used to working with prepositions as a common part of your day-to-day conversation.

In short, using prepositions allows for you to give people a bit more information about what you are doing, where you are going, and/or where you are.

What type of prepositions are there?

As mentioned above, though, there are more than just basic prepositions – you get more than one type of preposition. They are used in all manner of conversation and thus need to be split up based on the context of what they are actually doing in the first place. For example, it is important to be able to distinctly tell apart all prepositions – and that is why the development of types of prepositions can be so useful in the modern world. Now, you can make sure you use the right kind of preposition when it is called for, optimizing accuracy.

Complementary prepositions

One of the most common forms of preposition is known as a complementary preposition. These are very useful because they give you a very easy way to understand why a certain word might follow on from a particular preposition.

These are very important as the word that follows on from a preposition helps to closely determine the kind of preposition that is actually being used. Many do not realize just how important this can be when it comes to determining what would make a suitable preposition in any given situation.

Conjunctive prepositions

This has become a common form of preposition as it allows for you to provide a clause as part of the overall complement. As you will find out, many prepositions tend to be delivered with a complement to help add a bit more detail to the statement being made.

For example, you might wish to use something like “because” as a preposition. This would be known as a conjunctive preposition, with “because” acting as the qualifier before your explanation. So, you could say something like “He lived on his farm because it provided privacy and an opportunity to work.”

That would well as it allow for you to help offer a bit more detail on the statement made.

Complex prepositions

As the name implies, the use of complex prepositions can be a touch difficult. They tend to use more than one word to make the point they intend to. This is commonly used to help describe a qualifier before a statement, so it could be something like “Due to the recent weather, we’ve had to cancel the celebration…” or “In light of new evidence, the case will be re-opened.”

It could even include things like ‘in the middle of’ i.e. “I am in the middle of washing my hair, phone me back later!” or even something like “On behalf of my family, I would like to say thank you.”

As you can see, then, more complex prepositions tend to be quite packed with information and ideas that you need to try and get across in a very particular way. The main challenge when choosing a preposition is to make sure that the beginning of the sentence can only make sense by using the preposition in the middle to help join it all together.

These are commonly used as a qualifier to help describe a new piece of information or statement brought to light.

Transitive prepositions

Following on from the above, transitive prepositions are very important as they always make use of a complement alongside a preposition. So, for example, you could say something like “he lived among the animals on his farm.” – that would be a transitive preposition. The reason why this matter is that you couldn’t simply say “he lived among the farm” – you need to explain what he lives amongst.

It adds more detail and description for the reader/listener and can be very important for making sure you can detail something properly. The vast, vast majority of transitive prepositions tend to be based around describing facts in closer detail.

Intransitive prepositions

Another form of preposition that you need to get used to dealing with are intransitive prepositions. These are very important to note about because they do not use a complement – this is important as not all prepositions are built with that method.

For example, to build on the example above, you could simply say instead something like “he lived indoors.” Or “he lived inside.” – it does not need to come with an extra complement of information. While a little vague, intransitive preposition allows for you to answer with a clear statement of fact and often are not followed up with traditional grammars afterward.

Essentially, if your transitive prepositions must come with a complement, then intransitive prepositions have no reason to follow that same structure – they normally do not come with a qualifier.

What is a preposition versus a postposition?

While the above might sound somewhat confusing, you are about to find out about something very important: postpositions. So, a preposition is something that is used to help qualify a statement in the ways that we have shown you so far. However, sometimes, the position you might wish to take might be better done at the end as a conclusion as opposed to a link or a build-up discussion.

So, there is quite a difference between using prepositions and postpositions. While a preposition will always come before the complement or wider statement, a postposition will always come at the end of the complement. However, you might be shocked to find out that prepositions are far, far more common than using postpositions in the modern English language.

In fact, while most of us tend to use a small number of prepositions, we use an even more limited number of postpositions. In fact, it’s normally going to be built around basic statements of fact, such as “And that was a long time ago.” – for the most part, they tend to be used as a means of summing something up, adding a touch more context to a statement that needs extra adjustment, or simply is seen as part of the easiest way to finalize a sentence.

Common postpositions that you might find yourself using on a regular basis, though, include things like aside and apart as well as key terms like hence, on, and through as just a few small examples of the kind of issue that you might be dealing with.

You will be happy to know, though, that prepositions are far more common and generally far more useful. Even those who fluently speak English to an advanced level will find their use of prepositions to far outweigh the number of times they will reach out for a postposition. However, if you are trying to learn English, it might be a wise idea to spend some time mastering the rather confusing nature of prepositions and postpositions.

Once you get used to working with postpositions, though, you should find it a bit easier to start coming ahead with using these in the right time and the correct place.

When should you use prepositions?

While trying to balance your use of prepositions and postpositions takes work, once you get used to naturally reading/speaking the language it should become much easier in general. You will start to realize that, for the most part, the use of prepositions/postpositions simply offers a bit more detail and information. It could offer more context, for example telling people that you are in a specific room, sat at a particular table, or tell somewhere where to find something i.e. cards, ID, or even where to find a location i.e. “The shop is on the right-hand side.”

Remember that prepositions are typically built around showing where something is, or when something happened. So, you could normally look to use these to describe a time, place, or location as much as anything else. Once you get used to working with prepositions in this way, you can start to use them to your advantage.

Getting to grips with prepositions

The main challenge is getting used to making sure that your sentences and your phrases put the preposition first, not last. For example, instead of saying “Do you know where he is at?”, you could simply say “Do you know where he is?”

Many of us use prepositions incorrectly because it can bleed into our own informal slang and conversational usage. However, if you intend on doing any kind of serious writing, it does pay to get used to the various uses of prepositions. Once you understand they more or less always go prior to the complement outside of some very unique exceptions, you will find it easier to be more detailed in both asking questions and providing answers.

You also need to remember that not every preposition is going to need you to include something like an ‘at’ – for example, many times you can substitute a preposition like “at” or something like “like”. For example, you could say something like “You look just like your father!” – but you wouldn’t say “You look just like you are furious!” – this does not sound correct. Instead, you would say “You look furious.” – there is no need for the preposition in the second example, whereas the first would sound off without its usage.

You also need to think about how you end a sentence, too; for example, in the “You look just like your father!” example, you might wish to adjust it to say something like “you look just like your father does!”

However, in the context of a preposition, this more or less ‘translates’ to “You look similar to your father does,” and we both know that is not correct. So, you would need to look to swap out the use of “like” for something like “as” because, in the context of prepositions, this makes more sense.

Remember, too, that slang and informal text can mean that prepositions become even more confusing. For example, many of us substitute “of” for “have” and this can create sentences that, at least within prepositions, make no sense.

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Mastering prepositions is a worthwhile exercise

The biggest challenge that you will likely face when it comes to writing and dealing with prepositions is getting to grips with all of the rules and subrules. For example, how you use terms like “into” and “in” can seem very similar, but within the context of prepositions would mean two entirely different things.

It can take some time to get your head around these factors, but it is by no means impossible. You just need to consider the various challenges that comes with how you use language. Once you get used to the little quirks that exist within prepositions, it does become much easier to use them effectively and accurately.

Also read What Is a Verb?

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By Bizhan Romani

Dr. Bizhan Romani has a PhD in medical virology. When it comes to writing an article about science and research, he is one of our best writers. He is also an expert in blogging about writing styles, proofreading methods, and literature.

7 thoughts on “What Is a Preposition?”

    • Prepositions must always be followed by a noun or pronoun. However, It is not uncommon to find a preposition between two nouns. Take these 2 examples:
      1. Everyone was surprised by his “lack of concern”.
      2. He has a “solution to the problem”.

  1. As a non-native English speaker I am always confused with the use of prepositions. My biggest confusion comes from sentences like these. Which one is correct:
    This is something we can sit on .
    This is something on which we can sit.

    • The first sentence “This is something we can sit on” is informal and used in everyday conversation.
      The second sentence “This is something on which we can sit” is formal and used mostly in formal conversations or writings.
      I would also like to add that a century back, the first sentence would be unacceptable in formal and informal conversations. There are still people who would consider the first sentence wrong even in an informal conversation.

  2. ” Zombies! Vampires! Werewolves!”
    “Behind you!”

    Thank goodness for prepositions. Imagine not knowing where the danger lay….


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