What is a prepositional phrase?

This month we’ll be asking, "what is a prepositional phrase?"

This is a very important part of English grammar. Don’t be put off by the long name: prepositional phrases are actually very simple parts of a sentence, though they can be used in a number of ways.


Prepositions Phrases

Very simply, a prepositional phrase gives extra information about a thing or an event. This information is most often to do with time, place or the way in which something happens, although it can be used to describe a great variety of contextual details.

Prepositional phrases always start with a preposition such as ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘from’,’after’, ‘through’ or ‘about’, and can be found in different parts of a sentence depending on what they are describing.


A)     Tim ate the pizza in bed.

B)      Carrie has the book about giraffes.

C)      Yuka went home after English class.

Now that we know what prepositional phrases are, let’s take a look at some of the different types and places that they can be used.


Adjectival prepositions

Some prepositions can be thought of as being similar to adjectives in English, that is, they are used to give more information about objects and people. See below:

D)     She opened the locker on the far right.

E)      Norbert ate the egg with brown spots on it.

In these examples, the prepositional phrases give extra information about the nouns that they attach to. The phrases ‘on the far right’ and ‘with brown spots on it’ are used to describe the words ‘locker’ and ‘egg’ respectively.

Adjectival prepositions most commonly refer either to an object’s location or physical characteristic. In example D), the preposition refers to the locker’s location, whilst in example E) the preposition refers to the egg’s characteristics.

Remember, adjectival prepositions can occur whenever there is a noun and as part of the noun phrase, so they may be seen in both subject and object positions. For example:

F)      The girl with a pink ribbon in her hair opened the door for the boy in the wheelchair.


Adverbial prepositions

These prepositions are a little harder to spot than adjectival prepositions. Instead of referring to nouns, they refer to the main verbs of the sentence and act just like adverbs. They usually give information about the place/direction, time or manner in which an action occurs. For example:

G)     Robert ran away from the monster.

H)     David slept all night.

I)        Bernadette carried the duck under her arm.

J)       Jamie ate pizza at a fine Italian restaurant.

Note how, in example G), the phrase ‘away from the monster’ refers to the action ‘ran’.


Identifying prepositional phrases

Quick Tip: Spotting where your prepositional phrases start and end in a sentence

Whenever you are unsure, turn the prepositional information into a question.

Sentence: Rosa picked the bicycle with the green handle bars.
Question: Which bicycle did Rosa pick?
Answer: The one with the green handle bars.

Sentence: Joey ate the banana in the tree.
Question: Where did Joey eat the banana?
Answer: In the tree.

With adjectival prepositions, our test question will begin with ‘Which’ or ‘What’ and the answer will always start with “The one…” followed by our prepositional phrase.

With adverbial prepositions, our question will start with ‘Where’, ‘When’ or ‘How’ and the answer will be the prepositional phrase only.


So there you have it! Good luck using prepositional phrases and have fun practicing them as much as you can!

For some background, you can read our previous post for more about prepositions, and our guest post from Grammar Girl about why prepositions are so hard to use.

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