Prepositional Phrases – Definition and Use

What is a prepositional phrase? It is a group of words made up of a preposition, its object, and any modifiers of that object. In most cases, prepositional phrases modify nouns and verbs. These two types are referred to as adverbial phrases and adjectival phrases. 

At the least, a prepositional phrase is made up of one preposition and its object. The object can be a clause, a noun, or a gerund (a verb form that ends in -ing and acts as a noun).

She arrived in time.

Is he really going out with that girl?

You can freely add modifiers to these two basic elements.

She arrived in the nick of time. 

Is he really going out with that lovely girl?

A few of the most common prepositions that usually start prepositional phrases include of, to, at about, after, before, behind, by, during, from, for, in, under, over, and with.

Prepositional Phrases That Modify Nouns

Let’s say we have a prepositional phrase that acts upon a noun. We would say it behaves adjectivally because adjectives modify nouns. Therefore, a prepositional phrase that acts adjectivally is called an adjectival phrase.

The puppy on the right is the cutest.

I always buy my bread from the grocery store on Main Street

My mother has always dreamed of living in a cottage by the ocean.

In the first example, on the right answers the question of which puppy the author thinks is the cutest. In addition, on Main Street provides information regarding the grocery store the writer is referring to. By the ocean explains which type of cottage the author’s mother is dreaming of. Each of these adjectival phrases gives specificity to a noun to enhance our understanding of the topic at hand. 

Prepositional Phrases That Modify Verbs

We’ve gone over prepositional phrases that modify nouns, but what about those that act upon verbs? This type of prepositional phrase behaves adverbially. This is because adverbs modify verbs. Therefore, a prepositional phrase that behaves adverbially is referred to as an adverbial phrase.

To figure out who stole the last piece of pizza, look behind you.

Hermione drank her butterbeer with enthusiasm.

In the first example, behind you provides an answer to the question, “Look where?” In the second sentence, with enthusiasm answers the question, “Drank how?”

Prepositional Phrases Acting as Nouns

In less frequent cases, they can also act as nouns in a sentence.

In the middle of the test is the worst time to use the restroom.

After the show will be too late for us to grab dinner. 

How to Avoid Excessive Use

It’s easy to overuse prepositional phrases. A general rule of thumb is to edit some of them out if they occur more than once every ten to fifteen words. You might be impressed by how much more economical and elegant your writing is when you do this. 

It is wise to behave with conscientiousness when walking with a knife in the kitchen of the restaurant.

While there’s nothing wrong with this sentence in a grammatical sense, it has two “with” phrases, an “in” phrase, and an “of” phrase. This is a sure sign that the content of the sentence could be stated more efficiently.

In the restaurant’s kitchen, walk conscientiously with knives. 

In this case, we were able to replace a prepositional phrase, with conscientiousness, with the correlating adverb conscientiously. Of the restaurant was a simple possessive that was easily switched to the restaurant’s. As you can see, we cut back the four original prepositional phrases to only two.

In addition, you can reduce prepositional phrases by using the active voice rather than the passive voice. Here’s a famous example that illustrates this concept:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

Here, it’s clear to see that the use of the passive voice makes this sentence sound fussy. The prepositional phrase by the chicken seems silly. It’s better written in an active voice, as stated below:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

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