Most English speaking people recall only a handful of common prepositions, but in reality, there are about 150 different prepositions. Three of these prepositions are in the top ten most commonly used words in the English language: of, to, and in. What are prepositions, are there more than one type, and if there are prepositions, are there postpositions? Finally, what can you do to understand prepositions better, especially when studying for an English proficiency test?
What are prepositions?
According to Merriam-Webster, the technical definition of a preposition is “a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.” Simply put, prepositions are connector words. These connectors customarily tie a noun to an idea. An example of this is in the sentence, “I went to the store.” “To” connects the location of “store” to where the person went.
Often a preposition is a short word such as on, in, or to. This standard is not the only option; it can also be a longer word, multiple words, or a short phrase. “In front of” is an example of a short phrase. She parked her bike in front of the school.
Prepositions are common in the English language. There are about 150 used with the most common being: above, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, by, down, from, in, into, near, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with and within.
Types of prepositions
Because there are so many prepositions, differentiating them helps to understand when and how to use them properly. The word directly following a preposition is called its complement, and how it relates to the preposition determines what type of preposition you are using.
A transitive preposition always uses a complement with a preposition. For example, the word “amongst” is a transitive preposition. You cannot write “she lived amongst the wildflowers” without the complement “the wildflowers.” Some traditional grammars believe transitive prepositions are the only true prepositions.
Intransitive prepositions do not need to use the complement to complete the thought. For example, “outside” can be used in the following sentence without a complement, “she lived outside.” You could add a complement to this, “She lived outside the city limits,” but it is unnecessary when using it. Traditional grammars believe intransitive prepositions are actually adverbs. The argument for intransitive prepositions parallels the use of transitive or intransitive verbs. “He runs” versus “he runs a marathon.”
This type of preposition uses a clause as the complement. Traditional grammar may categorize these are subordinating conjunctions instead of conjunctive prepositions. One common example of a conjunctive preposition is the word “because.”
When two or more words form a preposition, they are a complex preposition. This type of preposition is also referred to as a compound preposition. Aside from being more than one word, it functions essentially the same as any other preposition. “In light of” is an example of a complex preposition. “In light of the recent traffic reports, the man drove a different way to work.” Other examples are in addition to, on behalf of, in the middle of, or across from.
Complex prepositions are mostly found at the beginning and the middle of a sentence, but rarely at the end. To find the correct complex preposition to use, focus on the relationship between the beginning and the end of the sentence. When you have determined this relationship, you can identify the proper complex preposition much easier.
Sometimes called prepositional phrases, phrase prepositions contain the preposition, the object, and the optional object’s modifier (extra details about the object such as “smooth” to describe a table). Some examples of these are “at home, with a little help, according to their wishes.”
Difference between prepositions and postpositions
As mentioned earlier, a preposition is a word connecting an idea or action to a noun. The example “I went to the store” describes where one went. The preposition “to” came before its complement “store.” The word “pre” means before, so the preposition (to) comes before the complement.
When this comes after the complement, instead of being called a PREposition, this is called a POSTposition. Post means “after,” and the postposition comes after the complement. English does not often use postpositions, although there are a few. Ago, as in “that was many years ago,” or through, as in “We slept the whole night through,” are two of the few postpositions English uses.
List of prepositions
Lists of prepositions like the picture above are overwhelming to study. They provide limited context as to how to apply the prepositions. If you are looking for a list of prepositions, these lists offer prepositions by category. Don’t forget to check out this preposition song used to help American kids when memorizing prepositions.
Even advanced English learners struggle with using prepositions in the proper context. Some of the ways native English speakers use prepositions do not translate well to other languages. Sometimes the only way to learn these is by forcing yourself to begin using them in your practice. The lists below describe using prepositions for place and time.
Prepositions – Place
|in||room, building, street, town, country
book, paper, etc.
|We sleep in our bedroom. We live in Texas.
I live in the United States.
I read about it in Harry Potter.
We are going in a bus to the sports game.
You look great in that picture. Where in the world were you?
|at||next to or by an object
for sitting at a table
place where you are to doing something
|Leave your shoes at the door.
We have dinner at the table.
I told him I would meet him at school.
We are studying at the library.
being on an object
for a certain side
for a floor in a house
for public transportation
|The mirror is on the wall.
The keys are on the desk.
The stage is on the right side.
We live on the first floor.
I talked to him on the bus.
I saw it on Twitter.
|by, next to, beside||left or right of an object or person||The school is next to the church.|
|under||on the ground or lower than something else||The ants are under the rock.|
|below||lower than something else||The glasses go below the cups in the pantry.|
|over||covered by something else
meaning more than
getting to the other side
overcoming an obstacle
|Put a blanket over your lap.
You can drive if you are over 16 years of age.
Drive over the bridge.
Climb over the wall.
|above||higher than something else, but not directly over it||The plates go above the glasses in the pantry.|
|across||go to the other side||Walk across the bridge.
Swim across the pool.
|through||to move from one place to another by entering the inside of something||Drive through the tunnel.
Enter through the breezeway.
|to||movement to person, building, place or country
can also indicate bedtime
|Go to the restaurant.
Go to California.
Go to bed.
|into||enter a room or a building||Go into the house. Once there, go into the bedroom.|
|towards||movement in the direction of something, as opposed to away from it||She walked towards the house.|
|onto||moving to the top of something||Jump onto the bench.|
|from||where did object come from||We bought a fruit from the grocery store.|
Prepositions – Time
|on||days of the week||on Friday|
|in||months / seasons
time of day
after a certain period of time (when?)
|in September / in autumn
in the evening
in thirty minutes
a certain point of time
at half past seven
|since||from a certain point of time in the past||since 1999|
|for||a certain past time until present||for 10 years|
|ago||a time in the past||4 years ago|
|before||earlier than a specified date||before 2020|
|to||telling the time||ten to 10 (9:50)|
|past||telling the time||ten past five (5:10)|
|to / till / until||the beginning and end of a period of time||from Wednesday to/till Friday|
|till / until||how long something is going to last||He is on vacation until Sunday|
|by||indicating the latest something will happen by
up to a certain time
|I will be done with work by 6 o’clock.
By 7 pm, I had finished my chores.
You must practice using prepositions to better your understanding of them. Simply reading through the information will not allow it to commit to memory for speaking, let alone an English proficiency test. Only by practicing preposition exercises will you acquire the skills to feel comfortable.
Ending with a preposition
Before you put yourself to the test, become familiar with spotting out incorrect usage of prepositions. See if you can spot out the mistake in the below sentences:
Where did he go to? Do you know where it is at?
In each of these, the question ends with a preposition. Remember, you ordinarily want to place the preposition before the object. There are some exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, it applies. Try instead the changes below:
Where did he go? Do you know where it is?
Like or as
Another hiccup is often the words “like” and “as.” Use “like” when saying something is similar to something else. Use “as” when comparing something to a verb. Which of the following sentences is the proper use of “like?”
You look like your mother.
You look like you are angry.
If you said the first one, you are correct. Again, think of replacing “like” with “similar.” Which sentence makes sense?
You look similar to your mother.
You look similar to angry.
The first one makes sense. Moreover, if you add “do” or “does” to the end of the sentence, the preposition may no longer be modifying the same subject. For example, in the first sentence, if you wrote, “you look like your mother does,” you would need to change “like” to “as” because no one says, “you look similar to your mother does.”
When not to use of and from
“Of” is often misused. When using the preposition of, make sure the verb “have” is not really what you are requiring. For example, “I should of taken the money to the bank,” should be written as “I should have taken the money to the bank.”
“From” is another tricky one. Skilled linguists will insist the phrase “different than” is rewritten as “different from” when at all possible. For example, “that shirt is different than the others,” should instead be, “that shirt is different from the others.”
In verses into
This rule is often one that is mixed up in the speech of even most native English speakers. When using “into,” pair it with movement towards something. In contrast, “in” is used when talking about a location.
Compare the two sentences below and their meanings:
She is walking on the street.
She walked into the street.
The first sentence means she is going for a walk on the street. The second says she has walked onto the street, maybe from her yard or out of the car.
Exercises to practice prepositions
With so many different types of prepositions and rules, it can be overwhelming to imagine taking an English proficiency test. Not to worry, there are plenty of places to pull up sample exercises for practice.
The English Page has numerous online practice preposition tests. English Grammar Online is another resource. Downloadable, amusing worksheets can be found at English-grammar.at. Englishpage.com is an extra resource for online practice problems.
If you are studying for an English proficiency test and need your skills to be in the best shape possible, start with the common prepositions and work up to the more advanced skills. Practice with worksheets a few times a week until you feel comfortable and as if prepositions were nothing more than a walk in the park. Did you catch the preposition there?