Nouns frequently occur in longer phrases with prepositions. These are very common words, but it is difficult to give a set of features by which we can recognise a preposition in a sentence. They are often short words like of, at, in, by, over, past, but can also be longer or even a number of separate words, with regard to, notwithstanding, in the course of, except, in spite of and so on.

They can also be made from a small number of verbs by adding –ed or –ing (i.e. the past and present participles): concerning, regarding, granted. Their position in a sentence is, however, limited to immediately before a noun or the –ing form of a verb (at night, by working hard) or before a longer phrase containing a noun:

  • In my opinion he’s wrong.
  • We’re sitting at the back.
  • They should’ve spoken to the senior partner.
  • She’s frightened of flying.
  • I have some experience in accountancy.
  • He helped me put out the fire.
  • I need to put by a bit of money every month.

Prepositions can also appear at the end of a sentence, although there are still some native speakers who consider this to be poor grammar. However, in many instances avoiding the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence can lead to grammatically unacceptable results or overly formal language.

  • Which one are you thinking of? (? …of which one are you thinking?)
  • The whole audience was taken in.
  • He was very easy to talk to.
  • I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. (?…about what he was talking)

Prepositions are used to refer to many types of relationship within the sentence including

  • time: in two weeks, during the night, after lunch
  • place: at the airport, within the city walls, over the table
  • movement: into the room, towards his house, through a tunnel
  • cause and effect: due to a strike, because of her illness, owing to the rain
  • contrast: despite the noise, in spite of his anger
  • examples: like everyone else, such as the manager
  • exception: everyone but you, all the people except me

There are, of course, many other prepositions in English with a wide range of meanings and for this reason prepositions are very difficult for learners to grasp with any certainty. Furthermore, some prepositions have more than one meaning and these may not be closely related:

  • I mended it with glue. (by means of)
  • She went with me to the airport. (accompanying)
  • Your order will be ready by Saturday. (on or before Saturday)
  • The missing child was found by the police.
  • The stolen goods were found by a tree. (next to a tree)
  • They went to France by air.