Prepositional Phrases: Definition and Usage

Prepositional phrases help to modify a noun, verb or act as a noun in a sentence themselves. Learning how to recognize and use them in a sentence will make you an expert in English speaking.

Prepositional Phrases Definition

A prepositional phrase is defined as:

  • A group of words that begin with a preposition and ends with a noun, pronoun, gerund, or clause. They modify a noun or verb, or act as a noun in a sentence.

Examples:

  • She went into the woods.
  • He ran through the field.
  • Reggie jumped over the hurdle.
  • Maggie looked around the corner
  • He looked at her.

Recognizing Prepositional Phrases in Sentences

Let’s break down the definition so you can recognize a prepositional phrase in a sentence.

  1. Each prepositional phrase begins with a preposition and ends with a noun (or pronoun, gerund, or clause).
  • She went into (preposition) the woods (noun).
  • She looked at (preposition) him (pronoun).
  • His love of (preposition) running (gerund) was immeasurable.
  • The house in (preposition) which they lived (clause) was full of dust.

With Modifiers

A prepositional phrase can also contain modifiers but will still end with a noun, pronoun, gerund, or clause.

  • She went into (preposition) the (modifier) woods (noun).
  • He ran through (preposition) our (modifier) field (noun).
  • Reggie jumped over (preposition) multiple (modifier) fences (noun).

In fact, you can add multiple modifiers.

  • She went into the cold, dark woods.
  • She went into (preposition) the cold, dark (modifiers) woods (noun).
    • He ran through the wide-open field.
    • He ran through (preposition) wide, open (modifiers) field (noun).
  • Reggie jumped over the tall hurdle.
  • Reggie jumped over (preposition) the tall (modifiers) hurdle (noun).
  1. They modify a verb or noun, or act as a noun in a sentence.
  • She went [verb]
  • She went (where?)
  • She went into the woods.

Adverbial Phrases

In this sentence, the phrase into the woods modifies or describes the verb went. This is an example of an adverbial phrase because the phrase acts like an adverb in the sentence. Here are a few more examples of adverbial phrases:

  • I go under the table when I’m scared.
  • The monks sat in silence.
  • He stared into the void.
  • The soldiers gathered near the bridge.
  • I raced to the store.

Adjective Phrases

If a prepositional phrase is used to modify a noun, it is called an adjective phrase. Here are some examples:

  • The man in the black car was the one that stole my purse.
  • I always buy my bread from the baker on Main Street.
  • Did you notice the man in the suit?
  • Or, were you staring at the woman in the red dress?

As a Noun

Lastly, in rare instances, prepositional phrases can act as a noun in a sentence. Here are some examples:

  • After ten was the only time he could sit down for dinner.
  • During a church sermon is a bad time to have stomach issues.

Note: This is the only instance when a prepositional phrase is used as the subject of a sentence.

English language has over 150 prepositions, so you can try a lot of combinations in your own writing and speech. If you need a reference, click on this full list of prepositions in English.

Prepositional Phrases: Advanced Speaking and Writing

It could be tempting to overuse prepositions and prepositional phrases in your writing and speech. This is an issue for native speakers and ESL students alike. And, without awareness, it can be detrimental to academic and professional papers.

Look at this example:

The girl in the black gown walked proudly with her diploma in her hand and with a big smile on her face.

Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but it uses the prepositions with and in twice and adds a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. In your writing, it’s always better to create sentences that are clear and concise.

Multiple prepositional phrases can mess up the pace of your writing by slowing it down and distracting the reader. Let’s rework that sentence:

The girl, dressed in a black gown, walked proudly as she held her diploma and smiled.

We transformed the prepositional phrases with her diploma in her hand and with a big smile on her face into a separate clause: as she held her diploma and smiled. With this change, we preserved the meaning of the original sentence while making our writing more concise and active.

Also, we removed phrases in her hand and on her face since their actions are already implied by the verbs used in the phrase.

Passive to Active Voice

You can also change a sentence from passive voice to active voice to cut down on extraneous prepositional phrases in your writing. Look at the example:

Why was my dress tailored by Mary?

Passive voice in this question makes it sound odd. And, if spoken, it wouldn’t align with the sentence structure used by natives. It’s much better in the active voice.

Why did Mary tailor my dress?

Use these tips in your writing and speech, and you’ll be on your way to mastering The Prepositional Phrase. Visit the Magoosh Speaking blog for more grammar tips and check out our resources below if you need additional help.

Jake Pool

Jake Pool

After working in the restaurant industry for over a decade, Jake left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. He now creates content that informs, inspires, and educates ESL students on a wide range of topics. Jake also records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension.
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