What Is a Preposition? Explanation, Usage, and Examples

Prepositions may be small words, but using the right one is essential. After all, coming to work with a box of donuts is a very different story than coming to work in a box of donuts. Once you know which words function as prepositions, and how prepositions work, you can keep yourself out of grammatical trouble — not to mention human-sized donut boxes. (Or are you donut-sized? We have so many questions.)

cat with preposition definition and three example sentences cat with preposition definition and three example sentences
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What Is a Preposition?

Prepositions are common words that show a noun or pronoun’s position. 

You can identify a preposition by thinking about a mouse. In each sentence below, the bolded preposition connects the mouse to the other noun in the sentence.

  • The mouse ran up the table leg.
  • The mouse sat on the table.
  • The mouse thought through his options.
  • The mouse crept to the cheese.
  • The mouse hid from the screaming person.
  • The mouse ran down the table leg.
  • The mouse dashed under the refrigerator.
  • The mouse cuddled with his cheese.

Examples of Prepositions

There are four main ways to use prepositions in a sentence:

  • to show location (The book is under my bed.)
  • to show time (I'll be there in five minutes.)
  • to show direction (You’re heading toward a tunnel.)
  • to show connections between ideas (Tell me about the game last night.)

Most prepositions function in more than one way. For example, the preposition over can be used in all three ways:

  • location - Hang the poster over my desk.
  • time - The hospital is over an hour away.
  • direction - I’m heading over there now.
  • idea - George isn’t over his ex-girlfriend yet.

List of Common Prepositions

There are several hundred prepositions in the English language, all of which are used to show a relationship between ideas. See how many you already know — and how many you haven’t used before.

about

above

across

after

against

along

among

around

as

at

before

behind

between

but

by

during

except

for

from

in

like

next to

of

off

on

over

past

than

through

to

until

up

with

If you’d like a longer list of common English prepositions, download the printable PDF below. It’s a great resource for writers, students, and English learners.

puzzle pieces with preposition definition, example sentence, and chart listing prepositions

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What Is a Prepositional Phrase?

When an object follows a preposition in a sentence, they form a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases function like adjectives to modify a noun or like adverbs to modify a verb.

  • The kids sat against the stone wall.
  • Shana texted me during the movie.
  • I am on the phone.
  • Alice went through her memory.
  • He's going to the store.

What Do Prepositions Do?

Prepositions describe relationships between other parts of speech. There are several ways to use different types of prepositions in a sentence — and depending on the context, a single preposition can function in many ways.

Prepositions Show Location

Many prepositions show a noun’s literal location in space (spatial relationships). Words like across, next to, and under can help a reader understand exactly where something or someone is.

Examples of prepositions that show location include:

  • Try not to sit across from your brother at Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Set up the chairs along the far wall, please.
  • It's good to be among friends.
  • He's waiting for you at the front door.
  • The coffee mugs are by the water glasses.
  • Please sit next to me.

Prepositions Show Time

Prepositions can also show relationships of time (temporal relationships). For example, while the word around works in the spatial phrase “around the block,” it also works in the temporal phrase “around noon.”

  • Let's go out for dinner after the show.
  • It will take around an hour.
  • Maria got to work at 8:00.
  • We’ll be there between 9:00 and 10:00.
  • The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.
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Prepositions Show Direction

While prepositions can’t show action (that’s a verb’s job), they can show movement by indicating a noun’s direction. 

These prepositions are often confused with adverbs, which show where an action takes place. But unlike adverbs, prepositions use objects to complete their meaning.

  • The duck flew over the lake. 
  • Let’s take a trip to Paris.
  • The car drove into the parking garage.
  • Mitchell headed toward the campsite.
  • We drove around the neighborhood.
  • The paper airplane sailed through the classroom.

Prepositions Show Connections Between Ideas

You’ll also find that prepositions show connections between ideas (logical relationships). They connect two nouns that aren’t literally near each other but have another logical connection. 

  • I’m voting against the candidate who wants to raise taxes.
  • Nora works as a librarian at the university.
  • She looks just like her grandmother at that age.
  • My brothers were fighting over the car.
  • She lives with her husband and four cats.

Practice Your Prepositions

Once you’re comfortable with prepositions, you’ll notice (and use) them everywhere. Be prepared to use them properly by learning everything there is to know about prepositions and practicing using them.