I love learning and will forever be a student. Last month I took a grammar and style MOOC offered by edX. I was quite surprised when reading the syllabus to discover that there were two writing assignments to complete as a course requirement. Despite the homework (lol), I enjoyed the course very much. It was fun, informative, and provided a nice opportunity to connect with new people across the globe.
One of the writing assignments was to create a short guide to help persons who are having difficulty with a particular topic related to grammar. I chose to create a guide about prepositions. As a proofreader, I see prepositions being used incorrectly quite often. During the course, many students said they struggled with prepositions as well.
My hope is that this short guide will be both useful and helpful to any writer. Enjoy!
Tiny, But Mighty: Prepositions
Many writers find prepositions a source of frustration. Prepositions can seem insignificant, but they play an important role in explaining the relationships between words in a sentence.
- My sister is in the hospital.
- My sister is at the hospital.
These sentences have different meanings. The first sentence suggests that my sister is a patient in the hospital, while the second suggests that my sister is visiting the hospital.
What is a preposition?
Merriam-Webster defines a preposition as “a function word that typically combines with a noun phrase to form a phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication.” In simpler terms, a preposition is a word used to say something about a noun. It explains the relationship of the noun to another word or phrase in the sentence. They usually tell us where one noun is in relation to another. Prepositions can show direction, time, location, and spatial relationships.
- Direction: Look to your left and you’ll see the Ferris wheel.
- Time: I’ve been writing this assignment since this morning.
- Location: I saw a play at the theater.
- Space: My daughter hides under her bed when it’s time to shampoo her hair.
Prepositions must be followed by a noun or pronoun. The noun or pronoun is called the object of the preposition.
Example: The toy is for the cat.
The preposition “for” is followed by the noun “cat.”
Example: These boots are for hiking.
In this sentence, hiking is a gerund. Although a gerund is made from a verb, it’s actually a noun. Here, hiking is a thing (a noun) that the boots are for. There isn’t a person performing the action (verb) of hiking.
There is a myth that says it’s grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. This isn’t true. When writing, the goal is to communicate clearly. Therefore, it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition if the alternative causes confusion or is too formal.
I would like to know where she comes from. (Grammatically correct.)
I would like to know from where she comes. (Grammatically correct, but too formal. No one speaks this way in everyday conversation.)
As a general rule, you should always remove unnecessary prepositions as it’s a sign of wordy writing. Removing unnecessary prepositions will clean up your sentences, making them more direct, concise, and easier to understand.
Example: For many people, the reality of an entry into a new area of employment is cause for a host of anxieties.
Revision: Changing careers makes many people anxious.
Prepositions can be pretty frustrating for such small words. They are a lot of them in the English language and unfortunately they don’t follow any simple set of rules. The only way to use prepositions correctly is to learn them individually and in context.