- Prepositions indicate relationships between other words in a sentence.
- Many prepositions tell you where something is or when something happened.
- Most prepositions have several definitions, so their meaning depends quite a bit on context.
- Ending a sentence with a preposition is not a grammatical error.
What is a preposition?
“Vampires! Zombies! Werewolves!”
Thank goodness for prepositions. Imagine not knowing where the danger lay . . .
Prepositions tell us where or when something is in relation to something else. When monsters are approaching, it’s good to have these special words to tell us where those monsters are. Are they behind us or in front of us? Will they be arriving in three seconds or at midnight?
Prepositions often tell us where one noun is in relation to another (e.g., “The coffee is on the table beside you”). But they can also indicate more abstract ideas, such as purpose or contrast (e.g., “We went for a walk despite the rain”).
Types of prepositions
Prepositions indicate direction, time, location, and spatial relationships, as well as other abstract types of relationships.
Direction: Look to the left and you’ll see our destination.
Time: We’ve been working since this morning.
Location: We saw a movie at the theater.
Space: The dog hid under the table.
Unfortunately, there’s no reliable formula for determining which preposition to use with a particular combination of words. The best way to learn which prepositions go with which words is to read as much high-quality writing as you can and pay attention to which combinations sound right. Here are a few examples of the most common prepositions used in sentences.
You can also use tools like the Google Books Ngram Viewer to see which prepositions most commonly occur with particular words—but remember, this tool can’t explain the difference in meaning between different prepositional phrases like “pay for” (to purchase) and “pay off” (to bribe). For that, you may want to refer to a list of prepositions that includes the meanings of common combinations, which you can find online, or to a usage guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style, which includes a list of words that often give writers trouble along with the prepositions that go with them in different constructions.
Ending a sentence with a preposition
The old claim that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition has been debunked. It’s not true now and it never was true. Writers who insist that a preposition can’t end a sentence often end up with stilted and unnatural-sounding sentences:
That said, it is sometimes more elegant to move a preposition to an earlier spot in a sentence, especially in very serious and formal writing. But if you do move the preposition, remember to delete it from the end.
One of the most common preposition mistakes is adding an unnecessary at to the end of a question.
Although this is common in some English dialects, it’s considered nonstandard in writing. You can fix the problem by simply deleting the at.
On the bright side, if you’re not sure which preposition to use, sometimes you can just get rid of it altogether. In fact, you should always get rid of unnecessary prepositional phrases. Too many prepositions can be a sign of flabby writing. Look at how many prepositions appear in the sentence below:
Getting rid of the prepositions forces you to tighten up the sentence. The result is shorter, more direct, and easier to understand:
Here’s another example:
Get rid of the up. You don’t need it: