Choosing the right prepositions

Prepositions are words that show the relationship between elements in a sentence. They can express relationships of place, time, direction, and other abstract or logical connections.

A preposition is usually located directly before the word or phrase that it relates to – the object of the preposition.

  • We walked to the shop.
  • I’ve been unwell since last Wednesday.
  • That gift is for him.

Prepositions are flexible words that are often central to the meaning of a sentence, and it can be tricky to choose the right one. The best way to master them is by reading and practice.

Using prepositions

Prepositions are often used to describe where, when, or how something happens.

Relationship expressedExamples
HowAccuracy was increased by repeating the test.
I fixed the light with a screwdriver.
WhenJeremy has wanted to be a musician since childhood.
The meeting resumes at 10:30 a.m.
WhereThe conference room is through that door.
The crushing machine is located in the mechanics lab.

However, prepositions are easy to confuse and misuse. The same preposition can often be used in different ways, and the meaning can only be deduced from the context.

  • Dangerous chemicals should be used behind the safety screen.
  • Every team member is behind the proposed changes.
  • The company is behind its competitors in terms of total revenue.

Furthermore, the choice of preposition can change the meaning of a sentence, so it’s important to use the right one. The following examples show the effect of switching between some commonly confused prepositions.

Commonly confused prepositions
ExampleMeaning
Of/forThe aim is to replicate the results of the engineering team.The engineering team produced the results.
The aim is to replicate the results for the engineering team.Someone else produced the results.
At/toThe prize was awarded at the office.The office is the location where the prize was awarded.
The prize was awarded to the office.The office received the prize.
On/inThis report examines the impacts of plastic pollution on developing countries.The impact suffered by developing countries due to plastic pollution (including pollution that occurs elsewhere).
This report examines the impacts of plastic pollution in developing countries.The impacts of the plastic pollution that occurs within developing countries.

Contrary to a common writing myth, there is no strict rule against ending a sentence with a preposition.

  • Machine error is an issue to look out for.

Common prepositions

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, there are over 100 single-word prepositions in the English language. These are some of the most common ones – but note that many of these prepositions can be used to express more than one type of relationship.

Common prepositions
Timein (month/year), on (day), at (time), before, during, after, since, until
Locationunder, over, above, below, between, in, out, on, at, by
Movementto, into, towards, through, across, up, down, around, past
Other relationshipsfor, by, from, of, as, with, about

As prepositions are so versatile, there are no defined rules about how to use each one. The best way to learn is by reading and practice. If in doubt, carefully consider the relationship you are trying to explain and consult a dictionary.

Multi-word prepositions

Sometimes prepositions take the form of multi-word phrases. They can also be combined with verbs to express physical or abstract relationships.

  • According to various sources, the new design is similar to the old one.
  • The sensor is situated on top of the battery pack due to space limitations.

As with single-word prepositions, these combinations can be used in many different ways. Using them correctly requires practice and careful attention.

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Fiona Middleton

Fiona has been editing for Scribbr since August 2016. She has a bachelor's degree in geology and is currently working towards a master's degree in marine sciences. She loves working with students based around the world to refine their writing.

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