What is a prepositional phrase?
A prepositional phrase is made up of at least a preposition and its object, which can be a noun, pronoun, or a noun phrase. Often times, the object will have a modifier or modifiers (such as adjectives, noun adjuncts, etc.) that appear between it and the preposition. These specify or describe the object, but, unlike prepositions, they do not serve to connect the object grammatically to the rest of the sentence.
- on the ground — On describes the location in relation to the ground.
- of the bedroom — Of specifies that whatever is being discussed is particular to the bedroom.
- down the dark alley — Down describes the direction of movement in relation to alley, while the adjective dark is a modifier specifying that the alley is not well lit.
- into an empty parking lot — To describes the direction of movement in relation to the compound noun parking lot. The adjective empty is a modifier specifying that the parking lot doesn’t have people or cars in it.
- because of the nasty weather — Because of is a compound preposition describing the reason why something happened—in this case, the nasty weather.
Prepositional phrases can behave in two ways in a sentence: as an adjective modifying a noun, or as an adverb modifying a verb, adjective, or adverb.
Adjectival Prepositional Phrases
When a prepositional phrase modifies a noun, pronoun, gerund, or noun phrase (all of which function grammatically as nouns), it is considered to function as an adjective within the sentence. We call these adjectival prepositional phrases, or sometimes just adjective prepositional phrases.
Adjectival prepositional phrases always follow the noun they are modifying. And, like an adjective, this kind of prepositional phrase answers one or more of the following questions about the noun:
- Which one?
- What kind?
- How many or how much?
- “The cat on the shed is black.”
On the shed is a prepositional phrase—on is a preposition describing the position of its object, the shed. The prepositional phrase is adjectival because it modifies the noun cat (which it follows directly in the sentence) by answering the question “Which cat?”
- “I would like to buy some flowers in a glass vase.”
The prepositional phrase here is in a glass vase—in is a preposition describing the object a vase. Glass is a modifier of vase, appearing between the preposition and the noun that it modifies. The prepositional phrase in this sentence is adjectival because it immediately follows the noun that it describes (flowers), and it tells us what kind of flowers the speaker would like to buy.
- “People from many different countries have visited here.”
From many different countries is a prepositional phrase modifying the noun people. It immediately follows that noun, and it answers the question what kind of people (people from different countries). But it also indirectly answers the question how many, because it tells the reader that a large number of people have visited.
Adverbial Prepositional Phrases
When a prepositional phrase modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb, it is considered to have the function of an adverb within the sentence. We call these adverbial prepositional phrases, or sometimes just adverb prepositional phrases, adverb phrases, or even just adverbs.
If an adverbial phrase is describing an adjective or an adverb, it will follow that word in the sentence. However, adverbial prepositional phrases don’t always immediately follow the verb they are modifying. Like normal adverbs, adverbial prepositional phrases answer the questions:
- How (in what way)?
- Why (for what purpose)?
- To what extent?
- “She will leave after a short run.”
Here the prepositional phrase after a short run follows the word it modifies, the verb leave. It describes a point in time (albeit a nonspecific one), answering the question of when the action will happen.
- “I ran a mile down the road.”
Even though the prepositional phrase down the road follows the noun mile, it actually describes the verb run. Here it is answering the question where: “Where did you run (a mile)?” “Down the road.”
An adverbial preposition can also be placed at different places in the sentence when modifying a verb, such as at the beginning. For example:
- “Because of my operation, I had to cancel my flight.”
The prepositional phrase because of my operation, which opens the sentence, is describing the verb cancel—in this instance, it is describing why the speaker had to cancel.
Adjectives and adverbs
Adverbial prepositional phrases that modify adjectives and adverbs can be harder to identify because the adjectives and adverbs are usually paired with verbs. Remember that these prepositional phrases always follow the adjective or adverb and will contain information specific to the adjective and adverb.
- “I was delighted with the results.”
In this sentence, the prepositional phrase with the results is describing the predicative adjective delighted, and it answers the question “Why are you delighted?” Even though delighted is paired with the linking verb was, the prepositional phrase very clearly describes the adjective rather than the verb.
- “I can get there more quickly on my new bike.”
Here, on my new bike describes the adverb more quickly, answering the question “How?” or “In what manner?” It could also seem that the prepositional phrase is describing the verb get, but the information in the prepositional phrase is specific to getting there quickly.
Multiple Prepositional Phrases
Sentences can (and often do) have more than one prepositional phrase. What kind of prepositional phrase each one is depends on what it is modifying, which is generally indicated by where it is placed in the sentence and what kind of information it is providing. For instance, verbs often take multiple adverbial prepositional phrases as modifiers, while an adjectival prepositional phrase can modify the objects of other prepositional phrases. It can seem a little bit complicated, but if you break the sentence down into parts, you can still apply the rules that were outlined above.
- “During the Christmas break, I visited my old school behind our house.”
There are two prepositional phrases in this sentence.
The first, during the Christmas break, is an adverbial prepositional phrase. We know this because it comes at the very beginning of the sentence, and it describes the verb visited (answering the question “When?”).
The second prepositional phrase is behind our house. It is an adjectival prepositional phrase, modifying the noun school and answering the question “Which one?”
- “We ended our game with the neighbors at once when we heard our parents calling.”
Here, two prepositional phrases occur one after the other. The first one, with the neighbors, describes the noun game, so it is adjectival.
The second prepositional phrase, at once, describes the verb ended, even though it comes quite a bit later in the sentence. Because it describes a verb, it is an adverbial prepositional phrase.
- “While I was home for the summer after my first semester of college, I decided to work in a store to earn some extra cash.”
This sentence features four prepositional phrases, three of which occur in succession.
The first is for the summer. It is functioning as an adverb to describe the verb phrase was home, specifying when the speaker was at home. (In this case it is describing a duration of time.)
Even though the second prepositional phrase, after my first semester, seems to describe the first one, it is actually also describing the verb phrase to further clarify when the speaker was home. In this instance, you can reverse the prepositional phrases—“While I was home after my first semester for the summer”—and still have the clause make complete sense (even if it’s not as clearly written).
However, the third prepositional phrase, of college, is an adjectival prepositional phrase—it is describing the noun phrase my first semester, which is the object of the second prepositional phrase. Here, it serves to answer the question which (or even what kind) about the semester being discussed. As such, it is “tied” to that preposition: it would not make sense to place it elsewhere in the sentence. For instance, “While I was home for the summer of college after my first semester” does not make sense.
The final prepositional phrase, in a store, is much easier to understand. It is an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying the verb work, and specifies where the speaker is going to work.