Posted August 18, 2020
Prepositions represent a tiny slice of the English language – there are only about 70 simple prepositions in a language of 470,000 words – but they do an enormous amount of heavy-lifting in our communications.
What prepositions do
In general, prepositions express relationships between concepts. They are always matched with nouns, usually coming before the noun. They help speakers and readers understand how that noun relates to the rest of the statement being made. Prepositions convey four kinds of relationships:
- Spatial direction: Steve fell OFF his chair ONTO the ground.
- Spatial location: Then, Steve laid ON the ground.
- Time: He stood AFTER a few minutes.
- Abstract concepts: He'd had enough OF that.
For instance, in the first statement, the prepositions “off” and “onto” help us understand the relationships between Steve, the chair, and the ground as Steve moves through space from a seated position to a prone one. In the last statement, the preposition helps us express the relationship behind his fed-up mental state and his experience.
Prepositions are surprisingly hard to master, even for native English speakers. Use of prepositions is highly idiomatic and idiosyncratic, and they don’t always make strict logical sense. For example, “The servers waited on the guest” doesn’t mean the servers are biding their time while positioning themselves atop or astride the guest. (Presumably.)
Probably the single most common question about prepositions is if it’s okay to end a sentence with them. Yes! It’s just fine to leave a so-called “stranded or dangling” preposition, albeit with a couple of exceptions.
First, this construction sounds more casual and may not be appropriate for formal writing. For a more formal tone, instead of “What do I owe this pleasure to?” write “To what do I owe this pleasure?” Just bear in mind that this kind of formal construction can become unbearably stilted in some situations. As Business Insider writes: "An unknown British government worker (not Winston Churchill) demonstrated its ridiculousness in his retort to a copy editor who tried to apply the rule: It is an 'offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.'"
Second, try to avoid unnecessary prepositions. For example, instead of either "To where are you going?" or "Where are you going to?" just ask "Where are you going?" In the end, conciseness and brevity always govern good writing, regardless of the audience you’re writing to.
For other grammar spotlights, read our deep dives into verbs and adverbs.
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Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations. Links: Merriam-Webster, The Guardian, Reader’s Digest, Business Insider, Wikipedia