How to Use Prepositions

Prepositions are words that describe the relationships between other words. They can describe where something or someone is located.

Example
The cup is on the table.

Here, the preposition “on” describes where the cup is in relation to the table. Prepositions can also describe when or how an event occurred.

Example
I arrived before him.
Example
I arrived by bus.

The preposition “before” describes when “I” arrived in relation to “him,” and the preposition “by” indicates that “bus” is how I arrived. Indicating the where, when, and how are the primary roles of prepositions, but they are also used to indicate possession and purpose.

Example
The purpose of this study was to develop a highly heat resistant composite with a carbon fiber base.
Example
A book is for reading.

Types of prepositions

Preposition type What these prepositions do Preposition examples

Simple prepositions

Describe a location, time, or place

at, for, in, by, off, on, over, under

Double prepositions

Two simple prepositions used together, often indicating direction

into, onto, upon, up to, inside, outside of, out of, from within

Compound / complex prepositions

Two or more words, usually a simple preposition and another word, used to convey location

in addition to, in front of, at the back of, along with, alongside of, in comparison to, in contrast to

Participle prepositions

Participles acting as prepositions

considering, including, excluding, during, regarding, provided

Phrase prepositions (prepositional phrases)

Include a preposition, an object, and the object's modifier

for example, for instance, on time, under the influence of

Simple Prepositions

Simple prepositions describe the relationship between two words (usually nouns) in terms of location or time. Common simple prepositions: at, for, in, by, off, on, over, under

Example
The sample was placed under a microscope.
Example
We have added additional information in the revision.
Example
The board meeting starts at 9:00 am.
Example
The sample was placed under a UV light for 30 minutes.

Double Prepositions

Double prepositions often indicate direction and consist of two simple prepositions put together. Common double prepositions: into, onto, upon, up to, inside, outside of, out of, from within

Example
We ran into the apartment.
Example
Progressively higher weights were placed upon the composite.
Example
The man walked up to the officer.
Example
Strange groans came from within the box.

Compound/Complex Prepositions

Compound prepositions indicate location and consist of at least two words. Common compound prepositions: in addition to, in front of, at the back of, along with, alongside of, in comparison to, in contrast to

Example
In addition to the tests to evaluate heat resistance, we also submerged the samples in water to test their varying degrees of hydrophobia.
Example
I left the package in front of the door.
Example
He picked up a soda along with the pizza.
Example
Sample 1 demonstrated high heat resistance in comparison to sample 2.

Participle Prepositions

Participle prepositions are participles that are acting as prepositions. They end with either “-ed” or “-ing.” Common participle prepositions: considering, including, excluding, during, regarding, provided

Example
Considering its high protein content, the sample’s resistance to heat was surprising.
Example
All of the samples, including the gold composite, were moved to a vacuum chamber.
Example
The professor talked about chirality during her lecture.
Example
The class will begin in five minutes, provided that all students are present.

Phrase Prepositions (Prepositional Phrases)

A phrase preposition, or a prepositional phrase, consists of a preposition, the preposition’s object, and any words that modify the object. Phrase prepositions often begin with “in,” “over,” “under,” “during,” “from,” “for,” “behind,” “before,” “after,” “at,” “for,” “about,” “to,” “of,” and “with.” Common phrase prepositions: for example, for instance, on time, under the influence of

Example
They arrived at the restaurant on time.
Example
You should not drive under the influence of alcohol.
Example
For example, composite A did not degenerate when heat was applied.
Example
She appreciates the flowers from her children.

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Ending a Sentence with a Prepositions

A common assumption is that sentences cannot end with prepositions. This assumption is incorrect and avoiding using prepositions at the end of sentences can result in sentences that do not flow naturally.

Unnatural
Is this the movie about which you told me?
Natural
Is this the movie you told me about?

However, moving a preposition to an earlier location in a sentence can help the sentence come off as more formal.

Informal
What journal was your last paper published in?
Formal
In which journal was your last paper published?

Both sentences are correct, but the latter is more formal than the former. As such, prepositions are rarely used at the end of sentences in academic writing.

Informal
This is a topic we previously wrote about.
Formal
This is a topic that we discussed in a previous paper.

When moving a preposition to an earlier location, it is important to remove the preposition at the end.

Incorrect
In which journal was your last paper published in?
Correct
What journal was your last paper published in?
In which journal was your last paper published?

Avoiding Unnecessary Prepositions

Like adjectives, prepositions are also often overused, even by native English-speaking authors. There are two cases of overused prepositions. The first case is when a preposition is used unnecessarily in a sentence.

Incorrect
Where is the other student at?
Correct
Where is the other student?

Here, the preposition “at” is unnecessary. The second case is when a sentence is written in such a way that requires too many prepositions.

Example
An understanding of gold composites is necessary for any company in the semiconductor industry at this time.

A sentence like this would be best restructured such that it does not require so many prepositions.

Example
Understanding gold composites is necessary for companies in the semiconductor industry.