Preposition Phrases (I) Quick Introductory Guide

Photo by lan deng on Unsplash

(The tie-in YouTube video can be found at the end of the post or here)

Basic principles

  1. The basic form of a prepositional phrase: preposition + noun (of + a prepositional phrase)
  2. A prepositional phrase can appear in two places to serve three main functions
    1. As a post-modifier following the head noun (e.g. The meeting in the afternoon);
    2. As a part of a phrasal verb (e.g. Eric participates in the staff basketball tournament.);
    3. As an adverbial modifying a verb (e.g. Eric delivers online lessons with Microsoft Teams.)

Part 1. Introducing prepositional phrases

Minor details in English often have an immense impact to a text. Prepositions are a limited set of grammatical words, which look trivial but trouble a lot of English learners. To many of them, using prepositions doesn’t seem to have a systematic pattern; little do they know what words prepositions to follow, or what go after prepositions. These small words are therefore apparently very complex, with numerous “rules” for learners to memorise before being able to apply them in writing.

Therefore, in the first episode of our trilogy, I will deconstruct a prepositional phrase, and then look into where we can put prepositional phrases in a sentence, before zooming in to focus on two common prepositional phrases that express time and place (See Part 2 and 3).

Forming a prepositional phrase

Let’s simplify the matter, and look at prepositions having an active role at the phrase level. This means, all prepositional phrases start with a preposition. What comes before a preposition does not matter (at this moment); what comes after a preposition to form a prepositional phrase is always a noun (on the tree), a noun phrase (on the great green gum tree) or a noun clause (onwhat I call a great green gum tree). The general formula is then: “preposition + noun”.

Putting a prepositional phrase within a sentence

Having figured out the form of a prepositional phrase, we can examine where they are located in a sentence. There are three common positions in which we can put a prepositional phrase in a sentence. I’ll zoom out from the level of a phrase to that of a sentence, so that I can move over to the focus of this post: prepositional phrases of time and place.

(A) Post-modifying a noun. Aside from adding adjectives before a noun, we can enrich a noun by adding a prepositional phrase after it. Let me use a line from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967), a song by The Beatles:

(1) Somebody calls you; you answer quite slowly      
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes

The prepositional phrase with kaleidoscope eyes would be to give more information about the girl. Whatever “kaleidoscope eyes” means, putting the prepositional phrase after the head noun is the only option. This is because, unlike other languages such as Chinese, descriptions not involving adjectives are seldom put before the head noun, cf. 那個 (that) 有著萬花筒眼睛 (kaleidoscope eyes) 的女孩 (girl).

(B) Forming phrasal verbs. This interests many learners, since a change in prepositions after the same verb can create different meanings. What phrasal verbs are is out of our discussion here; however, we must note that what comes after a preposition of the phrasal verb must always be a noun, or an item functioning like a noun (e.g. gerund). Shall I use one mistake that many beginners would make (including myself when I first started) with “to look forward to”:

(2) I look forward to the coming event.
(3) I look forward to hear from you to hearing from you.

What has to come after to is a noun (to denote “something”) but not an infinitive. In Example 3, the phrase including a gerund hearing from you functions just as a noun. Similar examples would be be devoted to + noun/gerund; be committed to + noun/gerund.

(C) Modifying verbs as adverbials. Our common understanding about adverbials are the single-word adverbs, but it is not hard to see that prepositional phrases can act like adverbs, with the function of providing information about under what circumstances an action is undertaken, i.e. modifying verbs in terms of manner, time, position and so on. I would use the chorus of my recent favourite San Francisco Street (2012) by Sun Rai to illustrate:

(4) I’m waking up in your house      On a San Francisco street

In particular, the first prepositional phrase apparently answers the questions regarding the action: “Where am I waking up? — In your house.” And the second one answers the question about the noun immediately before: “Where is your house? — On a San Francisco Street.” So, these two prepositional phrases provide more information about the location of the persona and the house. 

These last two examples pave a nice way towards Part 2 and 3, when we focus on how to express time and location with prepositional phrases. Stay tuned, and see you next time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s