Categories of Prepositions

Defining Categories

Most prepositions have multiple usages and meanings. Generally speaking, prepositions can be divided into eight categories: time, place, direction or movement, agency, instrument or device, reason or purpose, connection, and origin. The following table highlights the most common prepositions and their categories*:
Category
Preposition
Time
at, in, on, for, during, since, by, until, before, after, to, past
Place
at, in, on, by/near/close to, next to/beside, between, behind, in front of, above/over, below/under
Direction or Movement
to, from, over, under, along, around, across, through, into, out of, toward(s), away from, onto, off, up, down
Agency
by, with
Instrument or Device
by, with, on
Reason or Purpose
for, through, because of, on account of, from
Connection
of, to, with
Origin
from, of
(*Many prepositions will fall under two or more categories. To determine what type of preposition is being used in a sentence, you must look closely at the context and what is being described.)

Prepositions of time

A preposition of time describes when or for how long something occurred or will occur. The three most common prepositions of time are at, in, and on. Each preposition of time refers to a different increment of or point in time, as shown below:
Preposition of Time
What it Describes
Example Sentences
at
specific and short times of day
“Let’s meet at noon.”
“Chris arrived at one o’clock.”
in
months, years, and specific times of day
“Beth starts school in August.”
In 2008, the U.S. held a presidential election.”
“I would rather work on the project in the afternoon.”
on
days and dates
On Tuesday, Dad went to the grocery store.”
“Valentine’s Day is on February 14.”
for
durations of time
“He lived abroad for many years.”
during
simultaneous events
“We’re not supposed to study during class.”
since
a continuous event originating from a specific point in the past
“She’s been waiting to hear back from the office since yesterday.”
by
a specific point in the future before which an event must be completed
“You must wake up by six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
until
a continuous event that will terminate at a specific point in the future
“Daniel can’t sneak out of the house until his parents go to bed.”
before
something prior to a specific time or event
“The moon rose before sunset.”
after
something following a specific time or event
“Katrina made a promise to help out after work today.”
to
time in relation to the next hour of the day
“My watch says it’s 10 minutes to three right now.”
past
time in relation to the previous hour of the day
“Ideally, the party would start no later than a quarter past eight.”

Prepositions of place

A preposition of place describes where something is located in reference to something else, or where something occurred or will occur. Like prepositions of time, the most common prepositions of place are also at, in, and on. The usages of these and other prepositions of place are explained below:
Preposition of Place
What it Describes
Example Sentences
at
specific points or locations
“Ben is planning on staying the night at a hotel.”
in
enclosed spaces
“The rice is in the cabinet.”
on
surfaces or tops of things
“Leave the towel on the counter.”
by, near, close to
lack of distance
“The library is by/near/close to the train station.”
next to, beside
adjacency
“Many people consider it rude to sit next to/beside a stranger in a movie theater.”
between
something in the middle of two people or things
“To make a sandwich, simply put something between two slices of bread.”
behind
something at the back of something
“I stood behind my sister while we waited in line.”
in front of
something situated before something
“Let’s put the dresser in front of the window.”
above, over*
something higher than something
“The arch above/over the hallway reminded Natalie of a castle she’d visited.”
below, under**
something lower than something
“All children fear the monsters below/under their beds.”
(*Over and above both describe something higher than something else, but over can also describe something directly in contact with and covering something beneath it. For example: “I draped my jacket over the couch” is correct, whereas “I draped my jacket above the couch” is incorrect.)
(**Under and below can both describe something lower than something else, but under can also describe something that is directly in contact with something on top of it. For example: “The puppy hid under the blanket” is correct, whereas “The puppy hid below the blanket” is incorrect.)

Prepositions of direction or movement

A preposition of direction or movement describes how, where, or in what way something moves. The following table highlights the most common prepositions of direction and movement, as well as their different usages:
Preposition of Direction or Movement
What it Describes
Example Sentences
to
movement with a specific aim, direction, or destination
“My brother went to Europe with his friends.”
from
movement with a specific point of origin
“She told stories about the time she walked to Spain from France.”
over
movement higher than and across something else
“The bird flew over the trees.”
above
movement to a point higher than something else
“He shot his arrow above the target.”
under/beneath
movement lower than something
“That large worm went under/beneath the dirt.”
along
movement on a straight line or edge
“The childhood friends rode their bicycles along the road.”
around
movement in a circular direction
“The couple held hands and skated around the rink.”
across
movement from one end to the other
“I walked across the flimsy bridge.”
through
movement from one side of an enclosed space and out of the other
“The burglar entered the house through the basement window.”
into
movement ending inside something
“If you jump into the water like this, you can make a big splash.”
out of
movement ending outside something
“Get out of that cave before the bear comes back!”
toward(s)*
movement closer to something
“Laughing, she threw up her hands and ran toward(s) the park.”
away from
movement farther from something
“Get away from the fire before you get burned.”
onto
movement ending on top of something
“Be careful climbing onto that ledge.”
off
movement down or away from something
“Parents are always yelling at their kids to get off the furniture.”
up
movement heading up
“When you use a fireplace, smoke goes up the chimney.”
down
movement heading down
“He jumped down and hurt his knee.”
(*Toward and towards are interchangeable. In formal American English, “toward” is preferred.)

Prepositions of agency

A preposition of agency describes a person or a thing that has caused or is causing something to occur. Sentences containing prepositions of agency are usually written in the passive voice and employ the prepositions by (for people) and with (for things). For example:
  • “The house was built by the three siblings.” (passive)
  • “The three siblings built the house.” (active)
  • “Her heart is filled with emotion.” (passive)
  • “Emotion filled her heart.” (active)

Prepositions of instrument or device

A preposition of instrument or device is used when describing certain technologies, machines, or devices. These prepositions are by, with, and on. Typically, by refers to methods of transportation, whereas with and on describe the use of machines and other devices. For example:
  • “Aunt Patricia returned home by ferry.”
  • “She opened the locked door with an old key.”
  • “May I finish my homework on your computer?”

Prepositions of reason or purpose

A preposition of reason or purpose describes why something has occurred or will occur. Common prepositions of reason or purpose include for, through, because of, on account of, and from. For example:
  • “Everything I did was for you.”
  • Through her bravery, we were able to escape unharmed.”
  • Because of the delay, I was late to the parade.”
  • “The employees refused to work on account of their low pay.”
  • “He knows from experience how to deal with them.”

Prepositions of connection

A preposition of connection describes possession, relationships, or accompaniment. Of is used for possession, to for relationships between people or things, and with for accompaniment. For example:
  • “The Statue of Liberty is located in New York Harbor.”
  • “A well-written essay is impressive to teachers.”
  • “Lisa wanted to go to the concert with Victor.”

Origin

When we describe a person or thing’s origin (such as nationality, hometown/state, ethnicity, the place where something was built or designed, etc.), we typically use the preposition from (and, to a lesser degree, of). For example:
  • “I met the most delightful couple from Italy.”
  • “I’m from New York originally, but I’ve lived in Dallas for many years.”
  • “The new professor is of Turkish descent.”
  • “The new computer from the tech giant should be revolutionary.”
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not one of the prepositions of time?





2. Which of the following sentences contains a preposition of place?





3. Which of the following sentences contains a preposition of agency?





4. Which of the following sentences contains a preposition of reason or purpose?





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