What is a preposition?

What is a preposition? It is a word (often a tiny, little two-letter one) or phrase used to show a relationship between a noun and another part of the sentence. The relationship might be a positional one (your tea is in the oven), temporal (I’ll come after the cricket finishes), or directional (You’ll get into trouble); it might have a more abstract, semantic role (as of plays in I’ve had enough of this). However, for the definition of a preposition, they all need one thing: a word to work with, or complement.

Get down from that ladder! puts the message across nicely, but if it’s missing a complement, Get down from! makes no sense – in English, at least.

There are loads of prepositions, comfortably over 100 in regular use in English, and discussion of them is often obscured in a dense foliage of grammatical terminology. Perhaps this is because they seem to come so naturally to us in speech, even when dealing with abstract contexts, and they number amongst the most commons words in most languages. Once you factor in prepositional phrases like from the romantic city of Paris, the potential is limitless.

They are often divided into three groups: prepositions of place (namely, at, in and on), prepositions of time (the same words with different meanings), and prepositions of direction (including many more of them). Other categories include telic and atelic prepositions (concerned with whether or not the action is completed), projective and non-projective prepositions (relating to the perspective of the speaker), and simple and complex prepositions (from in to in relation to).

What starts out in books for tiny children with simple examples (the gun is in her hand; the bullet passes through her shoulder; the police are around the building), gradually shifts into metaphorical territory where the meaning is neither spatial nor temporal (I am in favour of gun control). Indeed, time-specific prepositions like before and after come from spatial coordinates themselves – before from ahead of, and after as in the aft of a ship.

Tricky creatures

They are devious little beasts, these prepositions, sent to trip up even the most fluent speakers of another language. A one-to-one translation of every preposition is impossible: one speaker will tell you that they in the train (im Zug, in German), while another will tell you they are on it (you guessed it, the English speaker). English speakers will admit to travelling in a car, but otherwise it is on with all other forms of transport. The logic can be argued until both speakers are blue in (or is that on?) the face, but neither of their choices will sound correct to the other.

The same word (up, for example) is sometimes not a preposition at all. For example, the up in pick up the gun is not a preposition; it’s a phrasal verb. However, hide the gun up the chimney is, because the up links the gun with the chimney.

Some may try and tell you that ending a sentence with a preposition is a mortal sin, but this is a myth, a result of an unrealistic project in the seventeenth century to make English more like Latin. Stranded or dangling prepositions, as they are often known, have been around as long as English itself and are a common feature in Germanic languages.

What is a preposition? It is a word or phrase that shows a relationship between the subject in a sentence and its complement, e.g., the definition of preposition is in the dictionary.

Examples of prepositions

spatial outside thinking outside the box
temporal before he arrived before noon
directional toward moving toward the goal