We’ve seen that phrases are either single words or groups of words that stick together and then function as a unit. That self-righteous frog, for example might be the subject of a finite verb, and has been croaking might be that finite verb. So far we’ve looked at noun, verb, adjective, and adverb phrases, which take their names from the part of speech (or word class) of their main words.
Now we’re ready to look at another kind of phrase called a prepositional phrase. In effect, prepositional phrases have two main words. I’ll explain this in a moment, but first it would be good just to read some examples. The prepositional phrases are in italics:
You sure ain’t the snake of my dreams.
He thinks he’s living in a distant galaxy.
A Frog in love is a menace to the pond.
During my childhood I never hugged ducks.
I baked those cookies for Eeenie, Meenie, and Miney.
But I’m also sending some to Moe and to the Leader of the Opposition.
Prepositions and their Completers
The two components of a prepositional phrase are a preposition plus its completer. The word preposition simply means “placed in front of”: a preposition (a list follows shortly) is usually the first word of the phrase. The completers of prepositions are usually noun phrases. These answer the question who(m) or what? when the question is placed immediately after the preposition. Here again are some of the prepositional phrases from the previous examples (unless you already have a feel for how prepositional phrases begin and end, don’t feel shy about saying these aloud):
of my dreams [of what? Answer: of my dreams]
on a distant planet [on what? Answer: on a distant planet]
in love [in what? Answer: in love]
During my childhood [during what? Answer: during my childhood]
for Eeenie, Meenie, and Miney [for whom? Answer: for Eeenie, Meenie, and Miney]
The who(m) or what? test, of course, tells you where the prepositional phrase ends.
Here is a list of a number of English prepositions, including the most common ones:
|through||around||by means of||like||out of|
|in spite of||upon||of|
You’ll notice that some prepositions consist of just one word and some of two or three words. It might be tempting just to glance at the list and move on, but, again, unless you already have a good feel for prepositional phrases, you’ll have a far better chance to acquire one if you make a little activity out of reading the list.
The activity is twofold. First, find a phrase that will serve as a completer of the preposition, thus making a prepositional phrase. Second, put the prepositional phrase in a sentence. Here are some possible sentences (from now on, I’ll be enclosing prepositional phrases in parentheses—also called round brackets):
I’m speaking (as your friend).
Dinner (at eight) is great!.
(Because of that fast-talking frog), we spent the night croaking.
I escape doing dishes (by whining).
(From your expression), I’d say you’ve swallowed the whole thing.
It wouldn’t be practical to try to memorize all the prepositions in English. In the first place, there are over a hundred of them, and in the second place, once you have a feeling for how prepositional phrases work, you’ll be able to identify even prepositions you’ve never seen before. A dictionary will identify any questionable ones.
Stress in Prepositional Phrases
Prepositions themselves are very seldom stressed in speaking. Instead, the stress usually falls on the main word of the completer of the preposition. In the following examples I’ve indicated what syllables would likely be stressed:
Look (in Harry’s pocket).
(With his usual clumsiness) the horse slipped and fell (on the flea).
Did you get a letter (concerning Fang’s belching)?
We love you (because of your jokes).
In the following two examples, however, the prepositions are stressed in order to bring out a contrast:
We don’t love you (because of your jokes) but (in spite of them). [Because of is a two-word preposition; in spite of is a three-word preposition.]
(With or without his cobra imitations), he’s still boring.
How Prepositional Phrases Function
Prepositional phrases nearly always function as modifiers of nouns or verbs. If it’s not clear just from reading what a prepositional phrase modifies, simply ask what? just before the prepositional phrase. The answer will point to the main word of modified phrase:
Fang will writhe and shine (on the roof). [what on the roof? Answer: will writhe and [will] shine: coordinate finite verbs. The prepositional phrase tells where the actions will take place.]
I left (after the hissing contest). [what after the hissing contest? Answer: the finite verb left. The prepositional phrase tells when I left.
(During the summer) Fang molted (in stages). [The finite verb is modified by both prepositional phrases: what during the summer? Answer: molted; what in stages? Answer: molted. In stages tells how he molted.]
Jack and Jill looked carefully at the hill but decided to go to a movie. [And connects the two coordinate subjects, and but connects the two coordinate finite verbs looked and decided.]
In contrast, prepositions connect different functions— that’s why they’re called non-coordinating. A preposition connects its completer with the word or phrase that the prepositional phrase modifies. Through this connecting, prepositions express certain relationships between their completers and the modified function. The following examples should make this relating function clear. It would be most helpful if you reread each example after you read the explanation:
I’ll meet you (near the duck house). [Near connects its completer, duck house, to the finite verb, meet. The relationship between the connected elements—the act of meeting and the duck house—is one of position.]
They definitely flew (toward me).[Toward me modifies flew The relationship is one of direction.]
A flea (on your nose) means money (before supper). [On connects your nose with flea; the preposition refers to the position of the flea. Before connects its completer, supper, with money; the relationship is one of time.]
The piranhas were sorted (by a grizzled old freelance piranha sorter). [By connects grizzled old freelance piranha sorter to the finite verb, were sorted. The relationship is one of agency or instrument: the means by which something is done.]
Doesn’t the idea (of a balloon honeymoon) make your spirits soar? [Of connects, or links, balloon honeymoon and idea. The relationship is simply that of connecting or linking: that is, the balloon honeymoon is the idea.]
The end (of your nose) has already begun to glow. [Of connects your nose to end. The relationship is one of belonging to.]
Physical and Abstract Relationships
A good many prepositional relationships are “physical” in that they express a movement or direction or position in space. You can get a good idea of this if you place a small object, like a cup, next to your keyboard or tablet. Now use your fingers and hands (or imagination) to indicate various prepositional relationships between your hands, the object, and the keyboard. For example, put your hand on the cup (stressing on); then hold it over the cup; circle your hand around the cup; put two fingers into the cup (if it’s empty); then take them out of the cup. Now put your hand between the cup and your keyboard. Slip your hand under the table. Point toward the computer screen. Think about carrying the cup to the sink and putting it in the dishwater. “Time” relationships are metaphorically physical: we come before class or leave after noon or arrive at seven—right on the dot.
Many other prepositional relationships are abstract. For instance, one dictionary lists more than a dozen relationships that can be expressed by the preposition for, including purpose (a feather for tickling Fang), duration (tickled him for an hour), doing something in favor of something (I’m voting for Fang), directing an action toward a goal (voting for Fang for president), and giving something in exchange for something else (a penny for your thoughts). If you speak English fluently, you already understand the meaning of these relationships, even if you’d never think of naming them.
Nested Prepositional Phrases
We’ve already seen examples in which two or more prepositional phrases in the same sentence each independently modifies the same word:
Red went (to Grandma’s house) (in the afternoon). [Each prepositional phrase independently modifies went.]
(With pachydermal dignity) Jumbo ambled (down the steps) and (into the ballroom). [Each prepositional phrase independently modifies ambled.]
But here is a different situation:
Cobras always sit (at the end (of the row) ).
Of the row modifies end [what of the row? Answer: end]. End, however, is itself the completer of the preposition at. So we have a prepositional phrase inside of and functioning within (“nested” in) another prepositional phrase. The complete nested phrase is at the end of the row, and, functioning as a unit, it modifies sit (what at the end of the row?).
I’m starting a fund (for plastic surgery (for Pinocchio) ).
In the same way, for Pinocchio is nested inside for plastic surgery, where it modifies surgery. The entire phrase, for plastic surgery for Pinocchio modifies fund.
Here’s a sentence with three nested prepositional phrases:
The tourists looked (like a herd (of sheep (with cameras) ) ).
It’s easier to keep track of this number of phrases if you start from the end. With cameras modifies sheep; of sheep with cameras modifies herd; and like a herd of sheep with cameras modifies looked.
Modifiers of Prepositions
Prepositions themselves are sometimes modified by adverbs—italicized in the following examples:
The frog hopped (just beyond her pillow).
It’s (really in the bag). [really what? Answer: really in. Really in the bag modifies is.]
He wiggled (almost out of his jeans). Almost modifies out. The prepositional phrase modifies wiggled.]
In each of the following examples the finite verb is modified by a prepositional phrase:
It flew (out the window).
We all looked (up the elevator shaft).
Professor Axe never flies (off the handle).
There is, however, a different structure that can be mistaken for this one. Take the following examples:
He turned out the light.
Just look up the words you don’t know.
Capt. Quack called off the migration.
In these sentences, out, up, and off belong much more to the finite verbs that precede them than to the completers that follow them. Reading for sentence rhythm, one doesn’t turn [pause] out the light, one turns out [pause] the light; one doesn’t look [pause] up a word, one looks up [pause] a word; one doesn’t call [pause] off a migration, one calls off [pause] a migration. In such situations, words like out, up, and off are not prepositions but special adverbs called particles (from Latin “small part”: particles are small words).
Particles modify the verbs they follow; but in terms of meaning they combine with their verbs to make verbs with different meanings. Turn out means “extinguish”; look up means “search in the dictionary”; and call off means “cancel.” These verb- adverb combinations are called particle verbs.
Sometimes a particle verb doesn’t have a completer:
He quickly caught on. [understood]
I’ll never ever give up! [surrender]
When a particle verb does have a completer, however, we want to distinguish between two possibilities: either “regular” verb plus prepositional phrase or particle verb plus completer. There’s an easy test:
With particle verbs, the particle can come either before or after the completer:
We’re setting up the exhibition. / We’re setting the exhibition up.
Turn on the stove. / Turn the stove on.
I looked up that word in the dictionary. / I looked that word up in the dictionary.
I’ll toss out the hippo. / I’ll toss the hippo out.
They put off the migration. / They put the migration off.
Also, if the completer of the particle verb is a pronoun, it must come between the verb and the particle adverb:
to set it up [NOT: to set up it]
to turn them off (NOT: to turn off them)
to look it up (NOT: to look up it)
But when a verb is followed by a prepositional phrase, you can’t move the preposition in a similar way; the result would be meaningless:
I’m calling on Dr. Thumb / I’m calling on him. But NOT: I’m calling Dr. Thumb on, and NOT: I’m calling him on.
I asked for another copy. / I asked for it. But NOT: I asked another copy for, and NOT: I asked it for.
To sum up, suppose you have the following sentences:
She spoke about her vulture.
You’ll need to choose between marking it
She spoke (about her vulture), or She spoke about her vulture.
You’d know that the first way is correct because you can’t shift the position of the completer and say: spoke her vulture about or spoke it about
But the following is a different case:
They are bringing over the vulture.
This has to be particle verb + completer:
They are bringing over the vulture.
That’s because we you can say, “bringing the vulture over,” or “bringing it over,” but you can’t say,” bringing over it.”