The J-school is at 219 West 40th Street, but on 40th Street. It’s in Manhattan, but on the West Side. Students live in apartments or buildings anywhere they can afford. On this island, they live in the Village, SoHo or TriBeCa; on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side; in Morningside Heights, Harlem, Washington Heights or maybe even Inwood. Some live in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, and a few on Staten Island.
For many students who arrived last summer, apartment-hunting was not only exhausting but also a lesson in prepositions. Like articles — and who doesn’t need to review those? — prepositions are (mostly) little words that mean a lot in English.
A preposition, according to Merriam-Webster online, is “a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.” Note that last word: object. Prepositions always come in phrases, and every preposition has an object. That object has to be a noun or something masquerading as one — a pronoun, a gerund, a clause. Some examples from literature:
On the Road
To the Lighthouse
Into the Wild
For Whom the Bell Tolls
If a word you know as a preposition has no object, it’s probably being used as an adverb, as in phrasal verbs. (See below.)
Prepositions tend to be specific to their uses, as in my lede: you live in a building, at an address, in a neighborhood (unless it’s a Side), in a borough (unless it’s an island). Why in rather than on Manhattan? Because Manhattan refers to the borough, which includes a few other islands like Roosevelt, plus Marble Hill on the mainland, which was part of Manhattan Island until the Harlem River was rerouted a century ago.
For a general guide to which prepositions go with which words — and which words take none at all — click here. The list isn’t searchable, so just scroll. Again, it’s just a guide. Choosing the “right” preposition is sometimes a judgment call that depends on how the phrase sounds to a particular editor’s ear.
Some issues from recent student work, with prepositional phrases in bold:
U.S. home prices nationwide dropped slightly in the end / of 2013.
Not quite. Prices may have dropped in 2013 or even in December 2013, but they dropped at the end of the year. An event happens on a date (Christmas is on Dec. 25), in a week (It’s in the last week of December), in a month (It’s in December) and at the beginning or end of something (It comes at the end of the year).
In addition / to poor weather conditions, the 13.2 percent drop of new orders last month was another likely reason of the dramatic decrease.
This sentence contains four prepositional phrases. In the first two, the prepositions are correct: in addition is a common phrase, and something is always in addition to something else. But: a drop in new orders, and always a reason for a result.
In the ’50s, productions from abroad were imitated, and Argentine television borrowed expressive elements to pre-existing forms / of communication / like theatre or radio.
This one has five, and only one error: to pre-existing forms. The clue here is borrow; you cannot borrow something to someone. (That’s lend.) You can only borrow from.
For his campaign / in 2012, the International Longshoremen’s Association conducted a boycott aimed at trade / with the Soviet Union / during periods / of crisis / like the Soviet invasion / of Afghanistan / in the 1980s.
The same story includes this sentence:
As a well-known advocate of Jewish issues, Nadler seems to care more about the Middle East than Eurasia.
Advocate of or advocate for? It depends on what follows. An advocate of something supports that position: He is an advocate of stricter gun control laws. (Tighter: He advocates stricter gun control laws.) But an issue is not a position, so Nadler is an advocate for, or possibly on, Jewish issues.
“When they are trying to put children to daycare, you can see the long line,” Gonzalez said.
Actually, you put children in or into daycare. But this is a quote. Should you clean it up? When in doubt, ask your editor. Some subscribe to the principle that quotes represent the speaker’s exact words should never be tampered with; others will clean up grammar on the ground that you don’t want to make your source look uneducated.
The wrong preposition can make a sentence amusing or turn its meaning completely around:
The reward is that you’re doing something to the community that you love and to the place that you call “home.”
Doing something to something has a negative connotation: “What have you done to my story?” the reporter screamed when he saw his edited copy. This writer here meant do for: to help someone. So: The reward is that you’re doing something for the community that you love and for the place that you call “home.”
To test your knowledge of prepositions, click here.
Remember that the objects of prepositions are always nouns or noun-substitutes. If you’re using a verb, it need to be a noun form of the verb. To review: the noun forms are gerunds or infinitives. But the object of a proposition cannot be an infinitive. After to go to the store, she put the groceries away? No, after going.
If a word you know to be a preposition has no object, chances are it’s being used as an adverb in a phrasal verb. A phrasal is a combination of a verb and an adverb or preposition that has an idiomatic meaning.
He threw the trash down the chute. Here down is a preposition. Where did he throw it? Down the chute.
But in the sentence She sat down, it’s an adverb, part of the phrasal sat down.
By the middle of the second semester, you’ve probably learned dozens of English phrasals. For an interactive quiz to test your mastery of phrasals, click here. Do the quiz as fast as you can, and keep taking it until you get all the questions right. You want these to become automatic.
One last word on prepositions: some old-fashioned English teachers would tell you, “A prepositions is nothing to end a sentence with.” They would rather you say, “A preposition is nothing with which to end a sentence.” In real life — and in the media — people commonly end sentences with prepositions, and nobody is much the worse for it. My advice: when writing, if you can find a graceful way not to split a preposition from its object, please do. But if being technically correct will make your sentence awkward or clumsy, don’t bother.