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Prepositional Phrase

Prepositional Phrase

Phrases are an essential part of the English language and are the building blocks of all sentences. There are five main types of phrases in English: noun phrases, adjective phrases, verb phrases, adverb phrases, and prepositional phrases. Today we will be looking at prepositional phrases.

Prepositional phrase meaning

A prepositional phrase is a group of words consisting of a preposition, an object, and any modifiers. Modifiers are words that add extra detail or information to another word, in this case, the object. Prepositional phrases are generally used to give us more information about a verb or a noun.

The dog sits behind a green plant.

In this example, the prepositional phrase is 'behind a green plant'. Behind is the preposition, green is the modifier, and a plant is the object.

Prepositional Phrase Image of dog and prepositions StudySmarterFig 1. Where is the dog? Behind the green plant!

What is a preposition?

Before we dive into prepositional phrases, let's take a quick refresher lesson on prepositions.

Prepositions are a special group of words that are used to show the relationship between other words in a sentence. Prepositions are most commonly used to indicate the relationships between time, space, location, and direction.

I've been working for 8 hours - Time

It's on the table - Space

We met in India - Location

Turn to the left - Direction

Here is a list of some common prepositions: across, behind, in, at, on, under, to, since, from, next to, in front of, for, and over.

The function of prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases are used to modify (give extra information to) a noun, a verb, an adverb, or an adjective. Prepositional phrases function in much the same way as prepositions and are used to show the relationship between certain words in a sentence in relation to time, space, location, and direction.

Prepositional phrases function as adverbs when they modify verbs and as adjectives when they modify nouns.

The man has many bags for sale.

Here, the prepositional phrase modifies the noun (the bags); therefore, it functions as an adjective.

She went to the counter to ask a question.

'Here, the prepositional phrase is modifying the verb (went) by answering the question 'why did she go to the counter?'. Therefore, it functions as an adverb.

Types of prepositional phrases

There are three types of prepositional phrases. There are the two we have already covered briefly: adjective prepositional phrases and adverb prepositional phrases, as well as prepositional phrases acting as a noun.

Adjective prepositional phrases and adverb prepositional phrases are the most common, so let's begin with those!

Adjective prepositional phrases

An adjective prepositional phrase acts as an adjective in a sentence, meaning it provides extra information about the noun.

The server at the restaurant was very helpful.

Let's break this sentence down:

Noun = The server

Preposition = at

Object = the restaurant

Adjective prepositional phrase = at the restaurant

The phrase contains the preposition 'at' and gives more information about 'the server', which is the noun.

The extra cash is inside the handbag.

Noun = the extra cash

Preposition = inside

Object = the handbag

Adjective prepositional phrase = inside the handbag

The phrase features 'inside' as the preposition, providing more information about the extra cash by telling the reader its location.

He showed us a picture of his new car.

Noun = a picture

Preposition = of

Object = his new car

Adjective prepositional phrase = of his new car

Adverb prepositional phrases

An adverb prepositional phrase acts as the adverb in the sentence, meaning it gives extra information about the verb.

We always have a family dinner on Saturday nights.

Verb = have

Preposition = on

Subject = Saturday night

Adverb prepositional phrase = on Saturday nights

The prepositional phrase tells us when family dinner happens.

We were cooking dinner at Emily's house.

Verb = cooking

Preposition = at

Object = Emily's house

Adverb prepositional phrase = at Emily's house

Here, the prepositional phrase tells us where the verb (cooking) took place.

Sally drove across the country.

Verb = drove

Preposition = across

Object = the country

Adverb prepositional phrase = across the country

Prepositional phrases can go anywhere in a sentence and still function in the same way. E.g. 'For a change, Lisa was early for school'. In this sentence, the prepositional phrase comes at the beginning of the sentence.

Prepositional phrases as a noun

It’s not very common, but sometimes prepositional phrases can function as the main noun within a sentence. In this case, the prepositional phrase is the subject of the sentence.

At the back of the bus is my favourite place.

Prepositional phrases are able to act as the main subject of the sentence because the noun is usually implied, rather than being explicitly said.

(a seat) At the back of the bus is my favourite place.

Commas and prepositional phrases

Commas are sometimes used with prepositional phrases, but not always. Let’s look at some general rules when it comes to commas and prepositional phrases.

Commas with restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases

If the prepositional phrase is a restrictive phrase (i.e. it is essential to the meaning of the sentence), we don’t use any commas.

The lights in the bedroom are faulty.

Without the prepositional phrase, the listener is unaware of which lights are faulty; therefore, it is a restrictive phrase and commas shouldn't be used.

When the prepositional phrase is not needed for the sentence to make sense (i.e. it is nonrestrictive), we can place two commas on either side of it.

The bedroom lights, from Barcelona, are faulty.

The fact the lights are from Barcelona isn't essential information and simply gives us more detail. If the prepositional phrase was removed from the sentence, it would still make sense; therefore we place the phrase between two commas.

Commas with introductory phrases

When the prepositional phrase is being used at the beginning of a sentence (usually acting as an adverb) we should separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

On the evening before Christmas, the kids refuse to go to bed.

It isn’t always necessary to use a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase. If the phrase is short and obvious enough, then you may feel there is no need to use a comma. E.g. ‘In the evening the kids refuse to go the bed.’

Commas with prepositional phrases containing gerunds

When a verb is acting as the noun in the sentence (we call these gerunds e.g ‘he went swimming’), the use of commas can be very important.

After cooking my sister fell asleep.

After cooking, my sister fell asleep.

Take a look at the first sentence. Without the comma, the reader might be left wondering if someone cooked your sister!

Examples of prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases are used to give insight and information to the reader. The most common type of information they give fits into two areas: place and direction, and time.

Below we will provide a list of prepositional words and phrases used to show the relationship between place, direction, and time, and will provide adjectival and adverbial examples for each.

Place and direction prepositional phrase examples

Here is a list of prepositions often used to show the relationship between two words in a sentence in terms of place and direction:

to, into, toward, towards, at, inside, outside, on, onto, around, beneath, by, past, close to, near, nearby, through, beside, among, behind, below, between, down from, up from, in front of.

The dog hides underneath the bed. (adverb)

The shoes were inside the wardrobe. (adjective)

Prepositional Phrase Image of a wardrobe Macrovector StudySmarterFig 2. Where are the shoes? In the wardrobe

Time prepositional phrases examples

Time prepositional phrases are useful as they allow the writer/speaker to give more context about when something is taking place. Giving information about the time can range from a specific hour to an entire period of time.

Here is a list of prepositions used to indicate time:

from, until, at, after, afterwards, before, beforehand, during, on, in

The party started at three. (adjective)

Millie promised to see her friend before work. (adverb)

What is the difference between conjunctions and prepositional phrases?

The role of conjunctions is to link together words, phrases, clauses and sentences. Some examples of conjunctions are: whether, whoever, which, until, though, supposing, now.

It is common for conjunctions and preposition phrases to be mixed up. Although there is some crossover, they function very differently. For example, conjunctions are there to join together parts of the sentence whereas prepositions are specifically there to point out the relationship between words in the sentence.

Look out for words such as before, while, after, and until - they can be used in both conjunction or prepositional phrases.

Can sentences have multiple prepositional phrases?

Sentences often have multiple prepositional phrases. Below is a sentence that includes five prepositional phrases. It is important to realise that sentences often have many prepositional phrases and to make sure you are identifying all of them.

During the winter holidays, after he returned home from university, Will started a job at a bar to earn some money.

Using prepositional phrases in your writing

Below are just a few examples of common prepositional phrases. You most likely already use some of these in everyday conversation and in your writing. It is good to think about which ones you already use, and use this information to deepen your understanding of how prepositional phrases work.

Above all

On account of

Through the looking glass

At first glance

Between you and me

Around the clock

At a loss

After many tries

To a certain degree

In common

In other words

By accident

Keeping prepositional phrases simple

It is possible to have numerous preposition phrases in a single sentence. However, it is important to recognise that using fewer preposition phrases can make your sentences clearer. Your understanding and usage of preposition phrases can affect the quality and readability of your writing.

Take a look at this comedic quote from Groucho Marx that emphasizes the importance of being clear when writing prepositional phrases.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know!

This quote highlights how easy it is for unclear prepositional phrases to send completely the wrong message. This is a reminder that we need to ensure sentences are clear and easy to read.

Prepositional Phrase - Key takeaways

  • A prepositional phrase is a group of words consisting of a preposition, an object, and any modifiers.
  • Prepositional phrases are used to show the relationship between other words in a sentence. They are most commonly used to indicate the relationships between time, space, location, and direction.
  • There are three types of prepositional phrases: adjective prepositional phrases, adverb prepositional phrases, and prepositional phrases acting as a noun.
  • Commas should be used with prepositional phrases when they are being used as introductory phrases, when they are nonrestrictive phrases, and when the prepositional phrase contains a gerund.
  • An example of a prepositional phrase is, 'The cat is on the kitchen table.'

Frequently Asked Questions about Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is a group of words containing a preposition, an object and any words that modify the object. Prepositional phrases provided extra information about a verb or noun in a sentence.

When the prepositional phrase gives us more information about the noun in a sentence, it is an adjective prepositional phrase. If it gives us more detail about a verb, it is an adverb prepositional phrase.  

Prepositional phrases give us additional information. When a prepositional phrase modifies a noun, it acts as an adjective. When the prepositional phrase modifies a verb, it functions as an adverb.

An example of a prepositional phrase is, 

'He showed us a picture of his new car.'


Of his new car = prepositional phrase.

There are common prepositions that will come up repeatedly, such as 'to', 'for', 'with', 'toward', 'beneath', 'near'. Look at the way words like this relate to the subject in the sentence, and what extra information they give - this will help you find the prepositional phrase.

Final Prepositional Phrase Quiz

Question

True or false? All prepositional phrases are adjectival.

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Answer

 False, prepositional phrases can be adjectival or adverbial

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Question

True or false? All prepositions come in the middle of a sentence.

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Answer

False, prepositions can come at any part of the sentence.

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Question

True or false? You can have more than one preposition phrase in one sentence. 


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Answer

 True.

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Question

Where can you find prepositional phrases used? 


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Answer

In everyday phrases as well as in literature.

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Question

What do all prepositional phrases consist of? 


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Answer

 A preposition and an object.

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Question

What kind of information can prepositional phrases give us? 


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Answer

Direction and place or time information.

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Question

 What kind of information would the preposition “underneath” give?


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Answer

Direction and place.

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Question

What kind of information would the preposition “during” give?


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Answer

Time.

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Question

 Which is the correct term: preposition specialists or preposition specifiers?


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Answer

 Preposition specifiers.

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Question

Why is it often good to not use too many prepositional phrases in one sentence? 


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Answer

To increase the clarity and readability of your writing.

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Question

Which of these is a preposition:    
A. Walk   
B. On  
C. Fun


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Answer

 B. On.

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Question

What is a conjunction phrase?


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Answer

A conjunction phrases' role is to link together words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

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Question

True or false? You always need a comma after a prepositional phrase.


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Answer

 False. Sometimes a comma is necessary, depending on the length of the phrase and the overall sentence flow.

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Question

 Is there a cross over between words used in conjunctional and prepositional phrases? 


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Answer

 Yes there is, but they function differently.

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Question

What are some examples of when keeping prepositional phrases simple in your writing is important?


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Answer

Writing emails and texts or filling out job applications.

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Question

Identify the prepositional phrase:

'She went to the shop to get potatoes.'

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Answer

'to get potatoes'

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Question

Identify the prepositional phrase:

'She read her book for one hour.'

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Answer

'for one hour'

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Question

Identify the prepositional phrase:

'I've been coming here since 2005.'

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Answer

'since 2005'

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Question

What type of prepositional phrase is in this sentence?

'She went to bed early to read.'

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Answer

Adverb prepositional phrase

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Question

What type of prepositional phrase is in this sentence?

'The books in the bookcase are mine.'

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Answer

Adjective prepositional phrase 

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