Prepositions are words or short phrases that identify the spatial (in space), directional (the direction in which something is moving), or temporal (in time) relationship of one or more people or things to other people or things. Prepositions communicate abstract relationships as well as concrete ones. While all languages have prepositions, English has a particularly large number of them, with important differences of nuance between similar prepositions. This handout will give an overview of prepositions, covering spatial, directional, and temporal prepositions.
Prepositions of Direction—To
Uses of "To"
The basic preposition of a direction is "to."
TO: signifies orientation toward a goal
When the goal is physical, such as a destination, "to" implies movement in the direction of the goal:
We flew from New York to Paris. (Or) We flew to Paris.
When the goal is not a physical place, for instance, an action, "to" marks a verb; it is attached as an infinitive and expresses purpose. The preposition may occur alone or in the phrase in order. The two uses can also occur together in a single sentence:
- We flew from New York to Paris to see our father.
The other two prepositions of direction are compounds formed by adding "to" to the corresponding prepositions of location.
The preposition of location determines the meaning of the preposition of direction.
ON + TO = onto: signifies movement toward a surface
IN + TO = into: signifies movement toward the interior of a volume
("To" is part of the directional preposition toward, and the two mean about the same thing.)
The frog jumped onto the lilypad.
The milk went into the glass.
With many verbs of motion, "on" and "in" have a directional meaning and can be used along with "onto" and "into".
This is why "to" is inside parentheses in the title of the handout, showing that it is somewhat optional with the compound prepositions. Thus, the following sentences are roughly synonymous:
The paper went into the garbage can.
The crab washed up onto the shore.
To the extent that these pairs do differ, the compound preposition conveys the completion of an action, while the simple preposition points to the position of the subject as a result of that action. This distinction helps us understand how directional and locational prepositions are related: they stand in the relationship of cause and effect.
- The paper went into the garbage can.
Position of subject: the paper is in the garbage can.
- The crab washed up onto the shore.
Position of subject: the crab is on the shore.
- See the sections below for some exceptions to this rule.
Uses of "to"
To occurs with several classes of verbs.
Verb + to + infinitive
Verbs in this group express willingness, desire, intention, or obligation.
Willingness: be willing, consent, refuse
Desire: desire, want, wish, like, ask, request, prefer
Intention: intend, plan, prepare
Obligation: be obligated, have, need
- I refuse to allow you to intimidate me with your threats.
- I'd like to ask her how long she's been skiing.
- I plan to graduate this summer.
- Henry had to pay his tuition at the Bursar's office.
In other cases "to" is used as an ordinary preposition.
Verbs of communication: listen, speak (but not tell), relate, appeal (in the sense of 'plead,' not 'be attractive')
Verbs of movement: move, go, transfer, walk/run/swim/ride/drive/ fly, travel
Except for transfer, all the verbs in listed here can take toward as well as to. However, "to" suggests movement toward a specific destination, while "toward" suggests movement in a general direction, without necessarily arriving at a destination:
The plane was headed toward a storm cloud.
The golf ball rolled toward the hole.
Here are some more examples:
- Drive toward the city limits and turn north. (Drive in the direction of the city limits; turnoff may be before arriving there.)
- Take me to the airport, please. (I actually want to arrive at the airport.)
Prepositions of Direction—Onto
Uses of "Onto"
"Onto" can generally be replaced by "on" with verbs of motion.
The hat went on(to) his head.
Here are some more examples:
- Dietrich jumped on(to) the mat.
- Huan fell on(to) the floor.
- Athena climbed on(to) the back of the truck.
Some verbs of motion express the idea that the subject causes itself or some physical object to be situated in a certain place (compare the three example directly above).
Of these verbs, some take only "on". Others take both on and onto, with the latter being preferred by some speakers.
He put the socks on his feet.
Here are some more examples:
- The plane landed on the runway. (not onto the runway)
- Sam hung the decoration on the Christmas tree. (not onto the tree)
- He placed the package on the table. (not onto the table)
- Joanna spilled her Coke on the rug. (not onto the rug)
- Samir moved the chair on(to) the deck.
- The crane lowered the roof on(to) the house.
- The baby threw the pot on(to) the floor.
Verbs taking only "on" are rare: set may be another one, and so perhaps is put. Other verbs taking both prepositions are raise, scatter (when it takes a direct object), pour, and add.
- The farmer scattered seed on(to) the fertile ground.
- We're adding on a wing at the back of the building.
- We're adding a porch onto the house.
In "We're adding on a wing at the back of the building" on is really part of the verb, while in "We're adding a porch onto the house" onto is a simple preposition. This contrast points to a fairly important and general rule:
Simple prepositions can combine with verbs, but compound prepositions cannot.
Note also that in "The farmer scattered seed on(to) the fertile ground", the word "on" has its ordinary meaning of a position on a surface, but in this case the surface is vertical rather than horizontal— the side of a building.
There are a number of verb-preposition combinations which are formally like "add on" but have the meaning "of continuing or resuming an action" when used in the imperative mood.
Except for hang, which takes both on and onto, they all occur only with on. The meanings of these combinations, some of which are idiomatic, are given in parentheses. Not all of them have the force of a command.
- Hang on(to the rope) ('continue to grasp tightly')
- carry on ('resume what you were doing')
- sail on ('resume or continue sailing')
- dream on ('continue dreaming'; a humorous way of saying 'that is an unattainable goal')
- lead on ('resume or continue leading us')
- rock on ('continue playing rock music')
Drive on! (Or, Keep driving toward the city).
Prepositions of Direction—Into
Uses of "Into"
With verbs of motion, "into" and "in" are interchangeable except when the preposition is the last word or occurs directly before an adverbial of time, manner, or frequency.
In this case only in (or inside) can be used.
Spike is lying in his house. (Not into.)
Here are some more examples:
- The patient went into the doctor's office. The patient went in. (not into)
- Our new neighbors moved into the house next door yesterday. ('to take up residence in a new home')
- Our new neighbors moved in yesterday.
In "Our new neighbors move in yesterday", the last word is the time adverbial yesterday, so the object of the preposition in can be omitted. Of course, in an information question, "into" also can be last word except for an adverbial when its object is questioned by a wh- word:
- Now what kind of trouble has she gotten herself into?
- Now what sort of trouble is she in?
Verbs expressing stationary position take only "on" or "in" with the ordinary meanings of those prepositions.
If a verb allows the object of the preposition to be omitted, the construction may have an idiomatic meaning.
- The cat sat on the mat.
- The doctor is in his office.
- The doctor is in. ('available for consultation')
- In(to) has two special uses with move.
When "move in" is followed by a purpose clause, it has the sense of "approach".
The lion moved in for the kill.
- The police moved in to rescue the hostages inside the building.
In "The lion moved in for the kill." and "The Police moved in to rescue the hostages inside the building" "in" is part of the verb, so "into" cannot be used; We cannot say: "The lion moved into for the kill."
When "into" is used with move, it functions as an ordinary preposition to convey the idea of moving something from one place to another.
- We'll move your brother's old bed into your room.
A man is jumping into the pool.
The man is in the pool.
The person is placing groceries into the shopping bag.
The person has completed putting groceries in the bag.
Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—A
Prepositions of spatial relationships deal with "where" the subject of the sentence is or "where" the action is taking place.
Write your name above the line.
Draw a line across the page.
She leans against the tree.
The girl is ahead of the boy.
There is lace along the edge of the cloth.
He is among the trees.
Draw a circle around the answer.
Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—B
The boy is behind the girl.
Write your name below the line.
He sat beneath the tree.
The girl is standing beside the boy.
She is between two trees.
Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—F-O
He came from the house.
In front of
The girl is in front of the boy.
He is inside the house.
There is a tree nearby the house.
His hat is off.
He came out of the house.
Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—T-W
She went through the door.
She is walking toward the house.
He is hiding under the table.
Please mark only within the circle.
Prepositions of Time, Place, and Introducing Objects
Prepositions are words or short phrases that identify the spatial (in space), directional (the direction in which something is moving), or temporal (in time) relationship of one or more people or things to other people or things. Prepositions communicate abstract relationships as well as concrete ones. While all languages have prepositions, English has a particularly large number of them, with important differences of nuance between similar prepositions. This handout will give an overview of prepositions, along with a practice activity.
Prepositions for Time, Place, and Introducing Objects
On is used with days:
- I will see you on Monday.
- The week begins on Sunday.
At is used with noon, night, midnight, and with the time of day:
- My plane leaves at noon.
- The movie starts at 6 p.m.
In is used with other parts of the day, with months, with years, with seasons:
- He likes to read in the afternoon.
- The days are long in August.
- The book was published in 1999.
- The flowers will bloom in spring.
To express extended time, English uses the following prepositions: since, for, by, from-to, from-until, during, (with)in.
- She has been gone since yesterday. (She left yesterday and has not returned.)
- I'm going to Paris for two weeks. (I will spend two weeks there.)
- The movie showed from August to October. (Beginning in August and ending in October.)
- The decorations were up from spring until fall. (Beginning in spring and ending in fall.)
- I watch TV during the evening. (For some period of time in the evening.)
- We must finish the project within a year. (No longer than a year.)
To express notions of place, English uses the following prepositions: to talk about the point itself: in, to express something contained: inside, to talk about the surface: on, to talk about a general vicinity, at.
- There is a wasp in the room.
- Put the present inside the box.
- I left your keys on the table.
- She was waiting at the corner.
To express notions of an object being higher than a point, English uses the following prepositions: over, above.
- He threw the ball over the roof.
- Hang that picture above the couch.
To express notions of an object being lower than a point, English uses the following prepositions: under, underneath, beneath, below.
- The rabbit burrowed under the ground.
- The child hid underneath the blanket.
- We relaxed in the shade beneath the branches.
- The valley is below sea-level.
To express notions of an object being close to a point, English uses the following prepositions: near, by, next to, between, among, opposite.
- She lives near the school.
- There is an ice cream shop by the store.
- An oak tree grows next to my house
- The house is between Elm Street and Maple Street.
- I found my pen lying among the books.
- The bathroom is opposite that room.
English uses the following prepositions to introduce objects of the following verbs.
At: glance, laugh, look, rejoice, smile, stare
- She took a quick glance at her reflection. (exception with mirror: She took a quick glance in the mirror.)
- You didn't laugh at his joke.
- I'm looking at the computer monitor.
- We rejoiced at his safe rescue.
- That pretty girl smiled at you.
- Stop staring at me.
Of: approve, consist, smell
- I don't approve of his speech.
- My contribution to the article consists of many pages.
- He came home smelling of alcohol.
Of (or about): dream, think
- I dream of finishing college in four years.
- Can you think of a number between one and ten?
- I am thinking about this problem.
For: call, hope, look, wait, watch, wish
- Did someone call for a taxi?
- He hopes for a raise in salary next year.
- I'm looking for my keys.
- We'll wait for her here.
- You go buy the tickets and I'll watch for the train.
- If you wish for an "A" in this class, you must work hard.