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What's IN a Preposition?

Josef Essberger

Prepositions can be divided into:

  • one-word prepositions (eg at, into, on)
  • complex prepositions (eg according to, in spite of)

The name "preposition" (pre + position) means "place before". Prepositions usually come *before* another word, usually a noun or noun phrase:

  • noun (I will meet you IN *London*.)
  • pronoun (Give it TO *her*.)
  • noun phrase (I'm tired OF *all this work*.)
  • gerund (verb in -ing form) (It crashed ON *landing*.)

If a preposition does not come before another word, it is still closely associated with another word:

  • *Who* did you talk TO?
  • TO *whom* did you talk?
  • I talked TO *Jane*.

Notice that many prepositions can also be adverbs:

  • He walked DOWN the hill. (preposition)
  • Please sit DOWN. (adverb)

A few prepositions can also be conjunctions:

  • Everyone came BUT Tara. (preposition)
  • I asked her BUT she didn't answer. (conjunction)

How many prepositions are there in English? It is not possible to give a definite answer, partly because complex prepositions are "open class", which means that new ones could be invented at any time. But for a list of almost all the one-word and complex prepositions in common use, see English Prepositions Listed which includes 370 example sentences.


Many words are associated with a particular preposition. When you learn a new word, try to learn the preposition associated with it. A good dictionary usually gives you examples.

Here are some common verbs that are associated with a particular preposition:

  • to agree WITH somebody
  • to agree ABOUT a subject
  • to agree ON a decision
  • to agree TO a proposal
  • to arrive AT/IN a place
  • to ask FOR something (but to ask a question/the time/directions etc)
  • to borrow something FROM somebody
  • to depend ON somebody/something
  • to explain something TO somebody
  • to insist ON -ing
  • to laugh AT somebody/something
  • to listen TO somebody/something
  • to participate IN something
  • to pay FOR something
  • to be rude TO somebody
  • to shoot AT somebody/something
  • to smile AT somebody
  • to succeed IN something
  • to talk TO somebody
  • to talk WITH somebody (US)
  • to worry ABOUT something
  • to write TO somebody

Here are a few common expressions with particular prepositions:

  • to be afraid OF somebody/something
  • to be angry WITH somebody
  • to be angry ABOUT something
  • to be bad AT something
  • to be clever AT something
  • to be good AT something
  • to be interested IN something
  • to be kind TO somebody
  • to be nice TO somebody

© 2001 Josef Essberger

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