Prepositional Phrase

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is a phrase that starts with a preposition and ends with noun (or a pronoun).

Easy Examples of Prepositional Phrases

In these examples, the prepositional phrase is underlined and the preposition is in bold.
  • A singer with passion
  • A town near London
  • Keep in time.
  • He acts without thinking.
It is a little bit more complicated than shown above because the noun can be anything that plays the role of a noun. For example:
  • It's a present from her.
  • (Remember, the "noun" can be a pronoun.)
  • She stole it from the man across the street.
  • (Here, the noun is a noun phrase.)
  • It's obvious from what he said.
  • (Here, the noun is a noun clause.)
The noun that follows the preposition (i.e., everything that's underlined but not bolded in the examples) is called the object of a preposition. There will often be modifiers in the object of the preposition making it a noun phrase. For example:
  • I sat with Simba.
  • (There are no modifiers in this example.)
  • I sat with the wonderful Simba.
  • (With the modifiers the and wonderful, the object of the preposition is now a noun phrase.)
Here is another example:
  • He beat Leewithout trying.
  • (There are no modifiers in this example. The object of the preposition is a noun. In this case, it's a gerund.)
  • He beat Lee without overly trying.
  • (With the modifier overly, the object of the preposition is a noun phrase.)
Prepositional phrases function as either adjectives or adverbs (i.e., as adjectival phrases or adverbial phrases). Here are some prepositional phrases functioning as adjectives:
  • Please buy the scarf with dots.
  • (The prepositional phrase describes the noun scarf. We could have written dotted scarf, which proves that with dots is functioning as an adjective.)
  • The man on the radio has a boring voice.
  • (The prepositional phrase describes the noun man.)
  • Give me one of the brown ones.
  • (The prepositional phrase describes the pronoun one.)
Here are some prepositional phrases functioning as adverbs:
  • Lee raised his small mackerel with utmost pride.
  • (The prepositional phrase modifies the verb raised. It is an adverb of manner; i.e., it tells us how he raised it. We could have written proudly raised, which proves that with utmost pride is functioning as an adverb.)
  • Before the war, Chris played football for Barnstoneworth United.
  • (The prepositional phrase modifies the verb played. It is an adverb of time; i.e., it tells us when he played.)
  • Dawn is tired from the hike.
  • (The prepositional phrase modifies the verb is. It is an adverb of reason; i.e., it tells us why she is tired.)
  • Lee lives in that fridge.
  • (The prepositional phrase modifies the verb lives. It is an adverb of place; i.e., it tells us where he lives.)

Real-Life Examples of Prepositional Phrases

In these real-life examples, the prepositional phrases are functioning as adjectives:
  • The best defence against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off. (The 1949 British Army Journal)
  • In 1938, Time Magazine chose Adolf Hitler for man of the year.
  • Red sky at night, shepherds' delight. Blue sky at night, day.
These prepositional phrases are functioning as adverbs:
  • I used to work in a fire-hydrant factory. You couldn't park near the place. (Comedian Steven Wright)
  • Never ruin an apology with an excuse. (American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin)
  • This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. (Satirist Dorothy Parker)
In the example below, the first prepositional phrase functions as an adjective while the second functions as an adverb:
  • A mathematical formula for happiness: reality divided by expectations. There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality or lower your expectations. (Author Jodi Picoult)
  • It can get quite complicated. For example:
  • A raisin dropped in a glass of fresh champagne will bounce up and down continuously from the bottom of the glass to the top.
  • (Here, in a glass of fresh champagne is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb that includes a prepositional phrase (of fresh champagne) functioning as an adjective. Similarly, from the bottom of the glass is functioning as an adverb and also includes a prepositional phrase (of the glass) functioning as an adjective. To the top is functioning as an adverb.)

    Why Should I Care about Prepositional Phrases?

    There are three good reasons to care about prepositional phrases.

    (Reason 1) Don't treat a prepositional phrase as the subject of your verb.

    Be careful when a prepositional phrase precedes a verb.
    • A box of knives were found at the scene. [wrong]
    • (Here, the subject is not knives. It is box. Therefore, the verb should be singular and not plural. This should read A box of knives was found at the scene.)
    • A combination of factors were the cause of the crash. [wrong]
    • (Combination is singular. The subject is not factors.)
    • Bernard Shaw hasn't an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him. (Playwright Oscar Wilde) [wrong]
    • (Marking this wrong is a little harsh, but try to treat none as singular (if for no other reason than many of your grammar-savvy readers will want it to be singular). Therefore, none of his friends likes him is a bit sharper.)
    Remember, don't treat the noun in your prepositional phrase (here, knives, factors and friends) as the subject of your verb.

    (Reason 2) The noun in a prepositional phrase influences the verb with an expression like most of, some of, half of, majority of and 99 percent of.

    Be aware that the noun in your prepositional phrase can influence the verb when the subject is an indefinite pronoun (i.e., a word like all, any, more, most and some), which can be singular or plural depending on context.
    • Most of the cake has been eaten.
    • (The noun in the prepositional phrase (cake) is singular. Therefore, most is treated as singular.)
    • Most of the cakes have been eaten.
    • (The noun in the prepositional phrase (cakes) is plural. Therefore, most is treated as plural.)
    • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Singer Jim Morrison)
    • (The main noun in the prepositional phrase (mistakes) is plural. Therefore, some is treated as plural. Note that of my life is just a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective modifying mistakes. The prepositional phrase of the worst mistakes is the one modifying some, which is the subject of our verb (have). Yeah, it can get complicated.)

    When modified by a prepositional phrase, an indefinite pronoun (e.g., most, some, all) copies the number of the noun in the prepositional phrase.

    Got that? Now, here's your two-for-one bonus. This ruling also applies to common terms like half of, the majority of and a percentage of, which can also be singular or plural. Such expressions are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural. For example:
    • Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time. (Writer Elwyn Brooks White)
    • (Half is plural because people is plural.)
    • Half of the world knows not how the other half lives. (Poet George Herbert)
    • (Half is singular because world is singular.)
    • Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation. (US politician Henry Kissinger)
    • (Ninety percent is plural because politicians is plural.)
    • My guess is that well over eighty percent of the human race goes without having a single original thought. (Satirist HL Mencken)
    • (Eighty percent is singular because human race is singular.)

    (Reason 3) Avoid ambiguity when placing your prepositional phrase.

  • One morning, I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • This well-cited joke by Groucho Marx plays on the fact that prepositional phrases can be ambiguous. Groucho knew we'd assume in my pyjamas was an adverb modifying shot. His punchline, however, told us that it was actually an adjective modifying elephant. Ambiguity with prepositional phrases can be a real issue. Look at this example:
  • Joe fed the shark in the cage.
  • (Does the prepositional phrase tell us where Joe was when he fed the shark, or does it tell us which shark Joe fed? In other words, is in the cage functioning as an adverb modifying fed or an adjective modifying shark? If you read it as an adverb (i.e., telling us where Joe was), you might assume there was just one shark. If you read it as an adjective (i.e., the shark that was in the cage), you would assume there were other sharks.) You can usually eliminate ambiguity by rewording your sentence. (Oh, and don't be surprised if your rewording hacks your original sentence to shreds.)
    • Joe was in the cage when he fed the shark.
    • Joe fed the shark that was in the cage.
    Often, context means there is no genuine ambiguity. Let's look at this example again:
    • Never ruin an apology with an excuse. (Benjamin Franklin)
    • (This is clearly telling you how not to ruin an apology as opposed to telling what type of apology not to ruin (i.e., the prepositional phrase is functioning as an adverb not an adjective.)
    • Joe hit the burglar with a hammer.
    • (So, who had the hammer? Often, a standalone sentence will be ambiguous (as this example is), but if the surrounding context eliminates the ambiguity, you will get away with not rewording your sentence.)
    The ambiguous examples so far have involved uncertainty over whether the prepositional phrase is functioning as an adverb or an adjective. Be aware that ambiguity (often humorous ambiguity) also occurs when it's unclear what a prepositional phrase is modifying.
    • We will not sell paraffin to anyone in glass bottles.
    • (What? There are people who live in glass bottles?)
    • Simon and his mother were reunited after 52 years in McDonald's.
    • (What? They spent 52 years in McDonald's?)
    When you use a prepositional phrase, do a quick check to see whether it could potentially be modifying something else in your sentence. Try to bear in mind that even though it's clear to you what it's meant to modifying, it might not be clear to your readers.

    If your prepositional phrase is ambiguous, move it next to (usually immediately to the right of) whatever it's meant to be modifying. That usually does the trick. If that makes your sentence too unwieldy, reword your sentence.

    These examples have been fixed by moving the prepositional phrase:
    • We will not sell paraffin in glass bottles to anyone.
    • Simon and his mother were reunited in McDonald's. after 52 years.
    Let's try that with the example Joe hit the burglar with a hammer:
  • Joe hit with a hammer the burglar.
  • (This is too unwieldly. We need to reword it. Joe used a hammer to hit the burglar is an option.)

    Key Point

    • The noun in a prepositional phrase does not govern the verb.
      • A list of faults has been recorded.
      • (Has is right because list is singular. Faults is plural, but that's irrelevant.)
    • With an expression like some of, most of, half of and majority of, the noun that follows determines whether the subject is singular or plural.
      • Some of the treasure is mine.
      • (Is is right because treasure is singular.)
      • Some of the coins are mine.
      • (Are is right because coins is plural.)
    • Be careful with prepositional phrases because they can be ambiguous. If there's genuine ambiguity, put your prepositional phrase next to whatever it's modifying or reword your sentence.
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