What Is A Prepositional Phrase?

If you know your grammar, you probably know the basics about adjectives and adverbs. These parts of speech are used as modifiers and provide more information—think of the words funny or quickly, for example. When we want to zhuzh up our sentences, we can easily do so using adjectives and adverbs. But there is another type of modifier that packs so much information that it can’t be contained in a single word. This modifier is called a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases allow us to write complicated sentences like We walked down the path, across the river, and under the trees. But that is just the beginning of what preposition phrases can do.

What is a prepositional phrase?

A prepositional phrase is a modifying phrase made of a preposition and the object of a preposition. Typically, a prepositional phrase begins with a preposition and follows with the object. Prepositions are words like about, across, after, for, and in. A prepositional phrase also includes any words that modify the object of the preposition.

Like adjectives and adverbs, prepositional phrases modify parts of speech by providing more information and answer questions such as “What kind?” or “When?” Unlike adjectives and adverbs, though, prepositional phrases always consist of multiple words.

The following sentences give examples of prepositional phrases:

  • Mariel was carrying a stack of picture books.
  • We went to the beach on Saturday.
  • The zookeepers fed watermelons to hungry hippos.

The above examples show nouns (books, Saturday, and hungry hippos) used as the object of prepositions. The object is the thing being affected or referenced by the preposition. Words and phrases that act as nouns can also be used as the object of prepositions. This includes parts of speech such as pronouns, gerunds, and noun phrases:

  • Pronoun: I gave the money to him.
  • Gerund: She is really good at surfing.
  • Noun phrase: We are ready for anything that might happen.

As you’ll soon learn, prepositional phrases are very common and can be used in a lot of different situations. It is possible for even a simple sentence to include multiple prepositional phrases:

  • We traveled to Atlanta (1) by taking a plane (2) from Kansas City (3).

List of common prepositions

There are a lot of different prepositions. In fact, some of the most commonly used English words are prepositions. Some common prepositions include:

  • at
  • by
  • for
  • to
  • in
  • into
  • on
  • onto
  • with
  • without
  • from
  • over
  • under
  • across
  • until
  • about
  • before
  • after

⚡️Prepositional phrase examples

You can’t have a prepositional phrase without a preposition. Let’s take a look at some example sentences that use prepositional phrases. In each prepositional phrase, the preposition is highlighted.

  • I really like talking to her.
  • By tomorrow, we will have finished cleaning the attic.
  • The puppy slept under her favorite blanket.
  • The documentary about Austria was made by an Austrian director.
  • The train traveled through Spain from Portugal.

Prepositional phrases: grammatical roles and functions

In sentences and clauses, prepositional phrases act as modifiers, similar to other parts of speech such as adjectives or adverbs. However, prepositional phrases are more versatile and can modify nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs.

Prepositional phrases modify nouns

Like adjectives, prepositional phrases can modify nouns (or words/phrases acting as nouns). Unlike adjectives, prepositional phrases typically come after the nouns that they modify. Prepositional phrases that modify nouns are sometimes referred to as adjectival prepositional phrases because they are essentially performing the same grammatical function as adjectives.

Examples of prepositional phrases as adjectives that modify nouns

Here are some examples of prepositional phrases being used to modify nouns:

  • He found a can of beans.
  • Emily got a letter from Santa.
  • The classic sitcom was a show about nothing.
  • Stories without endings are very disappointing.
  • Reading by candlelight is pretty tough.

A very important thing to remember is that it is the noun and not the prepositional phrase that determines if a verb is singular or plural; a plural prepositional phrase can be followed by a singular verb in a sentence. For example, look at the following two sentences:

❌ Incorrect: A box of chocolates are a good gift.
✅ Correct: A box of chocolates is a good gift.

In these sentences, the subject of the sentence is the singular noun box and not the plural noun chocolates. Chocolates is the object of the preposition of. When used with nouns, prepositional phrases do not affect what verb a sentence uses. Only the subject of a sentence determines if the verb is singular or plural.

Don’t get lost in pronouns—learn the difference between subject and object pronouns.

Prepositional phrases and pronouns 

Prepositional phrases can also modify pronouns. For example:

  • He might be able to beat one of us, but he can’t beat all of us.

Things get tricky when prepositional phrases are used with certain indefinite pronouns. Some indefinite pronouns can be either singular or plural. These include pronouns such as any, all, more, most, such, and some. Often, these indefinite pronouns rely on prepositional phrases to clarify if they are singular or plural words. In this case, the object of the preposition will tell you if the pronoun is singular or plural. Once you know that, you can use the correct verb.

For example:

  • Singular: All of the pie has disappeared.
  • Plural: All of the pies have disappeared.
  • Singular: Most of the field is covered in weeds.
  • Plural: Most of my friends are older than I am.

Prepositional phrases modify verbs

Prepositional phrases can also modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Sometimes, these prepositional phrases are referred to as adverbial prepositional phrases because they essentially perform the same grammatical function as adverbs. Like adverbs, it is possible for prepositional phrases to come at the end of sentences or come before a sentence and followed by a comma.

Examples of prepositional phrases as adverbs that modify verbs

Let’s look at examples of prepositional phrases used both at the end and the beginning of sentences to modify verbs.

  • The prospector was searching for gold.
  • The mice hid from the cat.
  • She sings like an angel.
  • At noon, we ate lunch.
  • By April, the cold weather will end.

Prepositional phrases modify adjectives

Like adverbs, prepositional phrases can modify adjectives, too. Unlike adverbs, prepositional phrases typically follow the adjectives that they modify.

Examples of prepositional phrases that modify adjectives

The following example sentences show how prepositional phrases can be used to modify adjectives.

  • My sister is afraid of the dark.
  • I am really bad at math.
  • Andrew won the contest, and we were all happy for him.
  • Stacy has always been nice to me.
  • The wobbly pole is steady for now.

Prepositional phrases modify adverbs

It is also possible for prepositional phrases to modify adverbs. As before, prepositional phrases usually come after the adverbs that they modify.

Examples of prepositional phrases that modify adverbs

In the following sentences, prepositional phrases are used to modify adverbs:

  • She works late at night.
  • They always get up early in the morning.
  • Penguins move slowly on land.
  • Giraffes begin walking immediately after being born.
  • Male peacocks strut majestically during the mating season.

It could be said that these prepositional phrases modify the verb and not the adverb; however, these prepositional phrases only describe the specific conditions that the adverbs are referring to, and most of these sentences would have different meanings if the adverb is removed but the prepositional phrase is not.

Prepositional Phrases Chart

Are you ready to quiz yourself on prepositional phrases yet? Take this quiz!

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