You are on page 1of 7

Chapter 6.

Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases


Main issues
Definitions and classification criteria
Prepositional phrases

Prepositions may depend on the part of speech they follow in a
sentence. An appendix is attached to the guidebook (annexes 4 to 9, pages
234-7) to offer extra information which indicates the right preposition to be
used after certain nouns, adjectives and verbs. In all these cases the use of a
certain preposition is compulsory.

Definitions and classification criteria

The prepositions represent a lexical class whose uses and meanings are
very difficult to establish according to some kind of criteria. They were
described by the grammars of various orientations in different approaches.
Thus, some authors treated them in independent chapters (see Quirk et al.
1985, Levitchi 1993, Schibsbye 1970) or they were treated as the main object
of monographic studies, either with a theoretical purpose (Stnciulescu 1975)
or with a practical one (Keane 1996, Popa 2001).
Prepositions are form words with no independent lexical meaning which
are used with verbs, nouns and pronouns to show their relations to some other
word in the sentence. Prepositions are not absolutely necessary for the
completeness of the message and they offer additional and sometimes
gratuitous information generally included in a sentence as a matter of choice.
The traditional grammars consider prepositions as secondary parts of
speech together with the conjunctions and the interjections.
Etymologically, their name comes from Latin and it consists of two
terms: prae + ponere whose meanings put together are to place before; this
etymologic interpretation could also be considered a sort of definition assigned
to this lexical class.

A Structural Classification of Prepositions

In point of structure, prepositions may be simple, compound and

complex. The simple prepositions (at, for, in, up, on) have shown the highest
frequency of occurrence, while the compound ones (such as into, within,
without, throughout, upon) are less frequent.
The complex prepositions are made up of adverb / preposition /
conjunction + preposition and they can be exemplified by out of, from
inside, etc.

A Semantic Classification of Prepositions

Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

Semantically, prepositions may describe a large variety of relationships,

and, in a considerable number of contexts, they will prove to be dependent on
their antecedents.
Prepositions may express spatial, temporal as well as many other
relationships, such as cause, purpose, means and agentivity, etc. Thus, they
concrete reference related to:
a) a point in relation to another point: on, in, of
There was a bird on the roof.
The dictionary is in the armchair not on the shelf.
b) destination and position: to, in, into, on
They go to London. They are in London.
Sam dives into the water. Sam is in the water.
The oak leaves fall on the grass. Shakespeares creation falls into three
Ill meet you at the bus stop. Well discuss it over on the bus.
c) source or origin: away from, out of, of
He took a rabbit out of that hat.
Those fossils were brought away from Sahara.
d) relative position: above, over, on top of, under, below, beneath,
underneath, behind, after, in front of, before
The huge statue was placed in front of the museum.
An embroidered towel was arranged above the icon.
e) surrounding position or motion: (a)round, about
They walked around the garden.
f) passage: over, behind, underneath, across, through, between, past
To reduce the distance they had to cover they went across that little
a) point in time: at, at sharp,
We usually meet at 5 oclock sharp, for our regular tea.
b) relative to a point: before, after
I never read the newspapers before breakfast.
c) period of time: at, on
Our family will join together at Christmas.
d) duration: during, for, all over, throughout, all through
The weather was hot during this summer.

abstract reference:
a) cause: because of, on account of
He missed a lifetime opportunity on account of his being late for the job
b) reason: for
People make donations for the sake of their own children
c) purpose and intended destination: for (this preposition usually follows
the verbs RUN, GO, HEAD, LEAVE, SET OUT)
The fire brigade headed for the accident theatre.
d) source: from
They took these rock samples from a glacier.
e) manner: in, like, with
We calculated the results with the help of a computer.
f) comparison: like
She looked like a sugar in a plump.
Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

g) means: by
Tourists are advised not to travel by night trains.
h) agency: by
The conclusion was reached at by a panel of experts.
i) reaction: at
Nations must retaliate at terrorist attacks.
j) attribution: to
The first prize went to the representatives of China.
k) support: for, with
This fund raising is done for the victims of natural calamities.
l) opposition: against
Nothing was found to be successfully used against his testimony.
m) exception: except (for), save, with the exception of, excluding
Except for Nick everybody else accepted to work long hours for the next
three weeks.
n) condition: but for
But for her brother, she could have saved more money.
o) respect: with reference to, with regard to, as for
Nothing else could be added with reference to what had been said in the
p) result: from, out of, over
His disease came from too much smoke.

Semantic Features of Prepositions

Prepositions are most often required by the verbs, nouns or adjectives
preceding them. It is necessary to emphasize that some prepositions may
suggest an impressive amount of meanings, in spite of their very simple form;
this is the case with polysemous prepositions, out of which only two will be
presented in a tabular form.
On the other hand, there are prepositions which are interchangeable, at
least when they are used in different registers (this may be the case of on and
upon, used in the informal and the formal register, respectively). Another
category of interchangeable prepositions is represented by those which
accompany certain verbs.


One and the same preposition may be used in several contexts to provide
for several meanings:

objective the study of English / the writing of novels
partitive six of the students / the door of the house
content the waters of the danube ; a photo of us all
quantity a family of five
extent in an area of ten square miles
source the heart of the matter / a man of the people
attributive a work of great beauty / an act of stupidity
temporal at the height of the season
cause die of hunger, tired of studying
Table 1. Of - as a preposition
Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

position near I sat by my secretary
movement near I walked by the post office
agency The letters were typed by the
relative to a point in She will finish them by tomorrow.
means They will be sent by registered mail.
extent The envelopes measure 9 cm by 6 cm.
Table 2. By - as a preposition

Partial Synonymy

There are instances when the same meaning may be expressed by

means of several forms; this is the case with those verbs followed by
compulsory preposition, which can be used fairly freely with different
prepositions without implying any great meaningful consequence. In what
follows two examples will be referred to in order to illustrate the above
statement. Thus, a simple example could be offered by the verb to agree and
a much richer example will be quoted from Downing & Locke (1992: 598):

They agreed to signing the contract before the end of the week.
We agree on discussing the contract terms the whole morning.
The manager agreed upon the delivery terms.
Table 3. To agree and its prepositions

The difference in the use of the prepositions on and upon is imposed

only by the style, the latter being used particularly in the formal style.
The verb to BELONG is always followed by the preposition by when it
expresses possession, as in the first example; when it is used to mean (1)
have a certain connection indicated or implied by the context (OED) or (2) be
in the right place; be suitable or advantageous the following prepositional
uses have been observed:

to This bag belongs to my mother-in-law.
with Cheese belongs with salad.
in This chair belongs in the other room
among He belongs among the radicals.
around He looks as if he belonged around a racetrack.
on The story belongs on a low level of literature.
under The theories of science belong under a different
zero I dont belong here.
Table 4. To belong and its prepositions

The Prepositional Phrase

Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions may join together into prepositional phrases which consist

of two basic units, i.e. preposition + prepositional complement / nominal
completive. The prepositional complement / nominal completive may be a
noun phrase or a pronoun, a wh-clause or an ing clause:
at the bus-stop a noun phrase
from what he said wh-clause
by signing a peace treaty vb-ing clause
by me/myself a pronoun

The English language makes an extremely wide lexicon-grammatical use

of prepositions and where there is a preposition there is a prepositional group,
since prepositions cannot stand-alone (Downing & Locke 1992: 580).

Grammatical Features of Prepositional Phrases

The relationships, which bind these compounding elements, make
learners treat them as a single unit.
considered as a whole this unit functions as
i) an element of clause structure, i.e. Adjunct
I decided to become a writer precisely for that reason.
ii) as a unit embedded in other classes of groups, i.e. a noun qualifier (the
man in the balcony) or as an adjective (delighted at your success)

when the preposition is placed at the end of a sentence and is

separated from the nominal, the concept of phrase contributes to restating
the grammatical relationship binding the elements of the same semantic
The fashionable band nobody among us had ever heard of before.

The Structure of Prepositional Phrases.

A phrase-based approach of the English grammar elements has offered
learners the possibility to notice phrase structures, which consist of three types
of elements: modifiers, qualifiers and heads. There have certainly been
situations where the head alone stood for the whole phrase. The example
below is a case in point:
Nick built houses.
Nick noun phrase that is made up of head expressed by a proper noun/personal
built verb phrase, which is made up of head, expressed by a simple irregular verb
houses noun phrase, which consists of head, expressed by a concrete noun in the

These types of structures, which are centered on the head alone, are
endocentric. Unlike the others, prepositional phrases cannot occur without a
nominal unit because the preposition cannot exist by itself in the position of a
head in a prepositional phrase. In this case the phrase is of an exocentric

Prepositional Phrases
Modifier Head Completive
right into his brothers hands
completely out of fashion
Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

straight along this country road

just at that moment
only by studying hard
quite near there
The Head of Prepositional Phrases

The head in a prepositional phrase may be expressed by means of:

simple / one-word prepositions: as, at, by, notwithstanding,
throughout, besides, underneath
two-word prepositions: apart from, except for, near to, regardless of.
The second element of the preposition links the head to the completive
three-word prepositions

in aid of / contact with / return for

on (the) ground(s) of / top of / the part of
by way of / means of
at the expense of / the hands of
for the sake of
with regard to / the exception of / a view to
to an end

These above stated examples do not explor all the possibilities. There
still exist prepositional phrases whose structure may have more than three

on behalf of the committee

for the sake of the children

preposition + noun + + completive

The completive element may be expressed by noun phrases (in

command, after which, on account of his age), adjectival phrases (in private,
at last, through thick and thin), adverbial phrases (for ever, since when, until
quite recently) or other prepositional phrases (except in here, from out of the
forest). (Downing & Locke 1992: 584) also exemplifies situations where the
completive element is expressed by infinitival clauses:
Have you decided about when you are leaving? / when to leave?
Have you any problems apart from where to stay?
The miners charge the employers with ignoring their claims.

The Modifier of Prepositional Phrases

The relationship expressed by the preposition + completive phrase is

modified so as to express various concepts. Some of these concepts are
exemplified below:

They are far more behind the schedule than we are.

I am absolutely in favour of reducing the working hours.
Chapter 6. Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

I think you are slightly out of touch with reality.

She was miles ahead of her rivals.

description or attitude:
We were dangerously close to having an accident.

focusing or reinforcing:
I failed precisely because of not feeling well that day.

The preposition and prepositional phrase represent a difficult chapter of

the English language, for they depend on the words preceding them, i.e., they
are antecedent-dependent:
They go to school. (to go is always accompanied by to, when it indicates
They arrive at school. (to arrive is always accompanied by at for it indicates the
selection of a place or the relationship of at-ness)

They are also context-dependent:

Paul works with me on this project (association = together with)
Paul works for me on this project (to replace me for I am abroad for a few

Prepositions and prepositional phrases are style-dependent.

You know me, my wellbeing depends on my own money (informal style)
Economic growth depends upon several factors (formal style)