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How to Teach Prepositional Phrases

Wouldn’t it make sense to spend instructional time on the part of speech that constitutes 30% of all writing? Prepositional phrases are used that much. The following article will help teachers properly define prepositions and prepositional phrases, help their students identify prepositional phrases in text, help teachers share specific writing hints regarding prepositional phrases, and help teachers assist English-language learners in using prepositional phrases properly.

Definition: A preposition is a word that shows some relationship or position between the preposition and its object (a noun or a pronoun). The preposition is always part of a phrase and comes before its object. The preposition asks “What?” or “Whom?” and the object provides the answer.

Examples: The secret was shared between friends.   between whom? …friends (noun)                        The secret was shared between them.      between whom? …them (pronoun)

Prepositional phrases never stand on their own. They always modify another part of the sentence, acting as an adjective to answer How Many? Which One? or What Kind? of a noun or pronoun or as an adverb to answer How? When? Where? or What Degree? of a verb, adjective, or another adverb.

Examples: The man, with the dog, walked quickly. with the dog modifies The man (adjective)     They ran through the city to their home. through the city modifies ran (adverb)

Identifying Prepositional Phrases

One helpful comparison is to substitute the cloud as an object of a preposition.

Example: In the sentence, Joanne walked past the station, substitute the cloud for the station. If the syntactical substitution (not the meaning) makes sense (it does), then past the station is a prepositional phrase.

Here is a list of commonly-used prepositions. Memorizing this list will help you recognize prepositions and use them in your writing. Remember that these words can be used as other parts of speech, if they are not followed by their objects.

aboard, about, above, according to, across, after, against, along, among, around, as, as to, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, instead of, into, in place of, in spite of, like, near, next, of, off, on, onto, outside, out of, over, past, regardless of, since, than, through, throughout, to, toward, under, underneath, unlike, until, up, upon, with, within, without

Writing Hints Using Prepositions

*You may place a prepositional phrase at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence, but make sure to place it close to the word it describes.

Examples: Clear—The lady in a blue dress found my dog. Unclear—The lady found my dog in a blue dress.

*We often end spoken sentences with a preposition, but avoid this usage in your writing.

Example: Spoken sentence—“Who will you go to?” Written sentence—“To whom will you go?”

Those who dislike this rule cite Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “That is nonsense up with which I shall not put.” However, ending sentences with prepositions is still considered poor writing style.

*Avoid stringing together too many prepositional phrases. A good rule of thumb is “never more than two prepositional phrases in one sentence.”

Example: Down the road, through the gate, and past the fence rode the bicyclist. Too much!

*Use prepositional phrases to form parallel structures in writing. Abraham Lincoln did this throughout the Gettysburg Address to create a memorable speech.

Example: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . . that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . . by the people. . . for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.”

Notice how Abraham Lincoln ignores the prepositional phrase strings rule.

*The subject of a sentence is never the object of a preposition. To identify the subject of a sentence, always begin by eliminating words within the prepositional phrases.

Example: Swimming under the bridge gave me a thrill. The bridge is not the sentence subject. The gerund, Swimming, is the subject.

*Place commas following introductory prepositional phrases, unless the sentence is quite short.

Examples: After the movie, they went out to their favorite restaurant and then to that fabulous dessert place. Through the valley rode the five hundred.

Prepositional Phrases as Idiomatic Expressions

Prepositions create problems for those who learn English as a second language. We rest in bed but on the sofa. We listen to the radio, but listen to a song on the radio.

Three little prepositions cause problems for English-language learners: in, on, and of.

1. Use the preposition in before months, years, and seasons.

Examples: We start school in September. In 2010, I learned to tap dance. I exercise more in summer.

2. Use the preposition on before days of the week, holidays, and months if the numerical date follows.

Examples: We do dishes on Mondays and on Wednesdays. We celebrate our presidents on Presidents Day. I went to the doctor on May 20, 2010.

3. Use the preposition of to show possession with a common noun. The preposition of is frequently  used to show possession instead of the common noun-apostrophe-s.

Example: Say, “The sound of a croaking frog brings back memories,”  rather than “The croaking frog’s sound brings back memories.”

However, don’t use the preposition of to show possession with a proper noun.

Example: “Give me the coat of Sue” is incorrect. Instead, use the common noun-apostrophe-s, as in “Give me Sue’s coat.”

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