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Preposition

Definition

A preposition is usually a short word placed before a substantive (or a pronoun) and indicating the relation of that substantive to other parts of the sentence (mostly verbs).

Example

"I was reading a book in the living-room."
The preposition “in” specifies, where exactly “I was reading a book”. It is placed directly before the noun “living-room” (not counting a sometimes optional article like “the”).

Categories

Prepositions, as a class of words, can be divided in five categories.

  1. Preposition of time (temporal) e.g. in, on, at, etc.
  2. Preposition of place (spatial) e.g. in, on, at, etc.
  3. Preposition for direction e.g. to, towards, into, through etc.
  4. Preposition for device, instrument or machines e.g. on, by, with, etc. and various semantic roles e.g. of, for, etc.

This classification is not disjunct: a lot of preposition fall in more than one group, e.g. “in” can be used for “in the car” (spatial) or for “in five years” (temporal).

There is some overlap with transitions words, conjunctions and linking words in general. Keep in mind, that the main purpose of a preposition is the determination of the relationship in time or place. Thus, contrary to other “small words”, they are not an element of style, but absolutely mandatory.


To find the correct preposition is difficult, even for advanced ESL speakers, since a 1:1 translation from your mother tongue is usually wrong. To make matters worse, no real rules exist, when to use which preposition. So the only way is, to memorize them. As always, reading books or watching movies helps a lot.
The following lists contain some of the most frequently used prepositions in English.

Prepositions – Time

English Explanation / Meaning Examples
  • on
  • days (of the week) & dates
  • on Sunday; on May 1st; on Christmas Eve; on my mark; on the weekend (AmE.)
  • in
  • months / seasons / year
    part of the day
    after a period of time
  • in summer / in July / in 2017
    in the evening
    in an hour; in the future
  • at
  • a specific point of time
    exceptions (question: "When ...?")
  • at 11:15 p.m.; at half past six
    at noon; at night; learned English at 42; at the weekend (BrE.); at first glance
  • since
  • from a specific point in time until now (past till now)
  • since 1980; since yesterday
  • until (till)
  • up to a certain point in time
  • until Monday; I’ll wait to call my manager until I hear from the client
  • for
  • over a certain period of time
  • for the first time in forever; for 3 years
  • ago
  • from now to a specific point in the past (now till past)
  • a second ago; a decade ago; a while ago
  • during
  • throughout the course or duration of s.th.
  • during summer; during the vacation; during the discussion
  • before
  • previous to in time; earlier than
  • before winter; before dawn; I have to talk to the client before I call my manager
  • after
  • Subsequent in time; at a later time than
  • after midnight; after tomorrow
  • to / past
  • telling the time
  • ten to two (1:50) / ten past two (2:10)
  • from / to
  • a starting point / an end point
  • from the beginning; from now to eternity
  • by
  • not later than
  • by 12 o'clock; by next week

Prepositions – Place

English Explanation / Meaning Examples
  • in
  • position or state inside sth.
  • in London; in the book, in the mirror; in love
  • at
  • in the area of ...; specific position
    an event (or a place related to it)
  • at home; at the table; at my side
    at the party; at the cinema; at school
  • on
  • position above
    in contact with
    a certain side (left, right)
    the state or process of
     
    means of conveyance
  • on the desk; on my shoulder
    on the wall; on the water
    on the left side; on the bright side
    on leave; on fire; on the way
    on the phone; on TV; on the menu
    on trains; on the bus; on a plane
  • off
  • from a place or position
  • off the table; off the wall; went off to Canada; got off the bus; turned off the TV
  • by, beside
  • at the side of; close to, next to
  • by the door; beside the car; stand by me
  • under
  • in a lower position; beneath the surface
  • under the table; under water
  • over
  • in or at a position above
     
    more than
  • put sth. over a shirt; walk over sth.; over my dead body
    over 100 years; over ten miles
  • below
  • in or to a lower place; beneath
  • below the surface; below 20°; below the clouds
  • above
  • higher than sth. else; overhead
  • above the door; the clouds above; the problems cited above
  • up
  • from a lower towards a higher point
  • up the hill; up there is a …
  • down
  • a descending direction
  • rolled down the hill; walking down the street

Prepositions – Direction / Movement

English Explanation / Meaning Examples
  • across
  • on, at, to or from the other side
  • across the street; lines across the paper
  • through
  • from one end or side to another
  • through the tunnel; a tour through France
  • to
  • in a direction toward a person or thing
     
    toward a (given) state
  • go to bed; move on to; face to face; to the entrance
    back to health; all the way to; to die for
  • into
  • movement to the inside or interior of
    to the condition, state, or form of
  • went into the kitchen; crashed into a tree
    breaking into pieces; go into banking
  • out of
  • movement from the inside to the outside
    no longer in the condition, state, or form of
  • drag myself out of bed; out of nowhere
     
    out of town; out of order; out of fashion
  • onto
  • movement to the top
  • jumped onto the table
  • towards
  • movement in the direction of; or closer to
  • towards the house; toward the future; toward peace
  • from
  • a starting point; movement away from
     
    a source, a cause; a distinction
  • walked home from the station; traveled from NY to LA
    a note from the teacher; know right from wrong

Other important Prepositions

English Explanation / Meaning Examples
  • of
  • originating from, composed of, associated with, belonging to
  • men of the north; a cup of coffee; the hand of God; that friend of yours
  • by
  • in the name of; through the agency or action of
  • a book by Mark Twain; by myself; played by the rules; killed by a bullet; one by one they left; by car, by bus
  • about
  • estimation of quantity
     
    on the subject of
    ready to do sth.
  • about ten people; about five minutes; about two miles
    a book about English
    the chorus is about to sing
  • for
  • indicates the object, aim or purpose
  • happy for you; for sale; eager for fame; for one thing, …; for heaven's sake
  • with
  • in the presence or use of
  • with a friend; with cheese; with confidence; with a lot of …; will be with you shortly; from Russia with love

List of Prepositions

Please feel free to download this concise list of prepositions as a 3 page cheat sheet List of Prepositions — the PDF contains all the prepositions listed on this page.

Prepositions — IN & ON & AT

Short overview of the 3 prepositions in & on & at and their use from more general to more specific describtions of Time & Place.


Grammar

A preposition is a word that creates a relationship between words to indicate relative positions in space or time.
The doctrine that a preposition may not be used to end a sentence was promulgated by 18th-century Latin-obsessed grammarians introverts. The rule has since become one of the most venerated maxims of schoolroom grammatical lore. Alas, unjustified so.

Examples

In fact, English syntax allows and sometimes requires final placement of the preposition.

  1. That depends on what you believe in.
  2. What did you step on?
  3. Elias had no-one to play with.
  4. Five excited puppies are almost too many to put up with.
  5. A good medium raw steak should not be so hard to come by.
  6. Ending a sentence with a preposition is nothing to be afraid of.

Abbreviations

Although there are no commonly accepted abbreviations for some of the basic terms used on this page, most grammarians (and dictionaries) employ some of these abbreviations.

Examples of Prepositions

Some special examples on how to use prepositions ;-)

Phrasal verbs

Many prepositions are also used as phrasal verbs (or idiomatically). There are no specific rules these expressions must be memorized. Here are some examples: