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The meaning and origin of the expression: Prepositional phrases

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Prepositional phrases

What is a prepositional phrase?

Prepostitional phrases image.Most sources define a prepositional phrase as a phrase containing a preposition. That's not a great deal of help if what you really want to know is 'what's a preposition?'.

So, what is a preposition exactly?...

A preposition is a word that tells you where or when something is located.

Examples might be, 'the cat is on the mat', 'I'll be back before teatime'. Notice that those example prepositions 'on' and 'before' denote their position in relation to something else - the cat isn't just 'on', it's 'on the mat'. That relating a thing's position to something else applies in all prepositional phrases. Here's a few more to give you the idea:

Keep it under your hat
He ran the hundred metres in under ten seconds

So, those prepositional phrases not only tell us that a thing is under, they also tell us what it is under.

As you might expect, there are many words which indicate a thing's location, either in place or in time. Here's a list of a few of the more common prepositions:

above
against
along
around
at
before
behind
below
beneath
between
down
from
in
into
near
of
off
on
to
toward
under
upon
with
within

The easy way to spot a prepositional phrase is to find a 'location' word like one of those above. Then you need to be able to answer where or when the word refers to - before when? - behind what? etc.

List of prepositional phrases

Looking at examples is probably more instructive than deciphering grammatical definitions. For some of the common prepositions above I'll list some everyday phrases that use them...

Above

  • Cut above the rest
  • Above board
  • Above my head
  • Above stairs
  • Above the law
  • Above the salt
  • Caesar's wife must be above suspicion
  • Get above yourself
  • Head and shoulders above
  • Ideas above your station
  • Keep your head above water
  • Over and above
  • Punching above his weight
  • Put your head above the parapet
  • Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky

Against

  • A house divided against itself cannot stand
  • Against the grain
  • Against the law
  • Against the odds
  • Against your will
  • Bang your head against a brick wall
  • If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?
  • Race against the clock
  • Race against time
  • Rage, rage, against the dying of the light
  • Set your face against something
  • Swim against the tide
  • Up against the wail

Around

  • Around The World In Eighty Days
  • Around the clock
  • Been around the block a few times
  • Chasing nickels around dollar bills
  • Dance around the problem
  • Get your head around something
  • Go around in circles
  • Green around the gills
  • Just around the corner
  • Rock Around The Clock
  • Rough around the edges
  • Run rings around
  • Shop around
  • The shot heard around the world
  • Wrapped around your little finger

Before

  • Age before beauty
  • Been here before
  • Before the ink was dry
  • Before you could say Jack Robinson
  • Before you could say knife
  • Before your very eyes
  • Bow down before
  • Business before pleasure
  • Calm before the storm
  • Don't cast your pearls before swine
  • Don't count your chickens before they are hatched
  • Don't try to run before you can walk
  • Gone before
  • Hauled before the court
  • I before E except after C
  • Is this a dagger which I see before me?
  • It was the night before Christmas and all round the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
  • Look before you leap
  • Old before your time
  • Pride comes before a fall
  • Put the cart before the horse
  • Right before your eyes
  • The darkest hour is just before the dawn
  • There will be tears before bedtime
  • To boldly go where no man has gone before
  • Wake Me Up Before You Go-go

Behind

Below

Beneath

  • Beneath contempt
  • Beneath your dignity
  • Marrying beneath yourself

Between

Down

  • A Spoonful Of Sugar Helps The Medicine Go Down
  • Bang, bang, Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon her head
  • Bob up and down
  • Bow down before
  • Breathing down your neck
  • Brought down to earth
  • By the hairs on my chinny chin chin, I'll blow your house down
  • Come down to earth with a bump
  • Come on down
  • Don't kick a man when he's down
  • Down Under
  • Down among the dead men
  • Down in the dumps
  • Down memory lane
  • Down the drain
  • Down the hatch
  • Down the tubes
  • Down to the wire
  • Go down for the third time
  • Go down on bended knee
  • Go down with the ship
  • He's got a yellow streak down his back
  • It went down the wrong way
  • Itsy Bitsy spider climbing up the spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out
  • Jack fell down and broke his crown
  • Lay down rubber
  • Let me take you down, cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields
  • London Bridge is falling down
  • Look down your nose
  • Up hill and down dale
  • When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all
  • You could have knocked me down with a feather

Near

  • Coming to a screen near you
  • Near and dear to my heart
  • Near death experience
  • Near the knuckle
  • Near to one's heart

Off

  • A load off your mind
  • As easy as falling off a log
  • Blown off the stage
  • Blown off course
  • Bouncing off the walls
  • Caught off base
  • Chip off the old block
  • Cut off at the knees
  • Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
  • Dropped off the perch
  • Fall off the wagon
  • Fly off the handle
  • Get Off My Cloud
  • Get it off your chest
  • Get off your high horse
  • Go off at a tangent
  • Go off the rails
  • Head them off at the pass
  • Hot off the press
  • If that don't take the rag off the bush
  • It fell off the back of a lorry
  • It's no skin off my nose
  • Like water off a duck's back
  • Off piste
  • Off the beaten track
  • Off the peg
  • Quick off the mark
  • Ride off into the sunset
  • Shuffle off to Buffalo
  • Take a long walk off a short plank
  • Wipe the smile off your face

Under

  • Born under a bad sign
  • Born under a lucky star
  • Cut the ground from under your feet
  • Don't let the grass grow under your feet
  • Down Under
  • Drunk under the table
  • Everything under the sun
  • Get under your skin
  • Go under the knife
  • Hide your light under a bushel
  • Hot under the collar
  • Keep it under your hat
  • Light a fire under someone
  • Pull the rug from under your feet
  • Reds under the bed
  • Sailing under false colours
  • Six feet under
  • Take under your wing
  • There's nothing new under the sun
  • Twenty thousand leagues under the sea
  • Under My Thumb
  • Under cover of darkness
  • Under lock and key
  • Under the boardwalk
  • Under the greenwood tree
  • Under the microscope
  • Under the radar
  • Under the spotlight
  • Water under the bridge

Within

Ending a sentence with a preposition

In some people's minds there exists a grammatical rule which instructs us not to end a sentence with a preposition. Fear not, there isn't. That rule, such as it ever was, seems to have been an invention of a few 17th century English writers who wanted to align English more with Latin, where endings like 'with', 'about', 'of' are considered ungrammatical.

The person most closely associated with this invented rule is the poet John Dryden who criticised the playwright Ben Jonson for using lines like "This figure that thou here seest put". According to Dryden, "The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him.”.

Like many other invented grammatical rules there's no clear reason why anyone should be constrained by this one.

It is widely reported that Sir Winston Churchill coined the line "this is the sort of English up with which I will not put", in order to make fun of the supposed rule. It's quite likely that he wasn't the person who coined this expression.

The English civil servant and writer Sir Ernest Gowers is usually considered to be the person who made that attribution, but even that is in doubt. The first known example of the expression in print is from The Strand Magazine, London, 1942, reprinted in The Wall Street Journal, 30 September 1942:

When a memorandum passed round a certain Government department, one young pedant scribbled a postscript drawing attention to the fact that the sentence ended with a preposition, which caused the original writer to circulate another memorandum complaining that the anonymous postscript was "offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put."

The implication is that the phrase which was considered to be in need of correction was "This is something which I will not put up with".

In Gowers' Plain Words,1948, he wrote:

It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put".

Several sources linked Churchill with the expression in 1948 and Gowers may have taken his lead from one of them.

The phrase certainly sounds Churchillian and he did write for The Strand Magazine but there's no evidence to establish Churchill as the author.

Other such spurious rules are:

Avoidance of split infinitives.

This one was dying out by the 1960s, not least because so few people knew what a split infinitive was. The nail was put firmly in the coffin in 1966 when Star Trek credits announced the crew would "Boldly go where no man has gone before".

I before e except after c.

This spelling rule was drilled into us grammar school students in the 1960s. It wasn't until much later that I realised that the sequence of ei after c appears in numerous properly spelled words, for example, 'receive', 'ceiling', 'conceit'.

'Less' cannot be used to apply to items which can be counted; 'fewer' should be used instead.

What purists get hot under the collar about is supermarket signs showing "5 items of less" etc. What they say is that it should be "5 items or fewer". Why?

See 'less versus fewer' for more details on that.