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Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions

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. 

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

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:


This image shows earth in a view from space. The Empire State building (New York) is on one side, and the Eiffel Tower (Paris) is on the other. A plane can be seen flying from the Empire State building to the Eiffel Tower.

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:

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.)


This image is of a pond. A frog makes a splash as it jumps out of the water and onto the lilly pad.

The frog jumped onto the lilypad.

This image shows a glass sitting on a table and milk is being poured into it.

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:

This image shows a crumpled ball of paper being thrown into a waste basket. There are several balls of paper scattered on the ground from previous failed attempts.

The paper went into the garbage can.

This image is of a beach scene. A crab is being washed onto the beach shore.

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.

Position of subject: the paper is in the garbage can.

Position of subject: the crab is on the shore.

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

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:

This image shows a plane flying toward a storm cloud. It is raining and lightning is striking.

The plane was headed toward a storm cloud.

This image shows a golf ball rolling towards the hole of the putting green.

The golf ball rolled toward the hole.

Here are some more examples:

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions of Direction—Onto

Uses of "Onto"

"Onto" can generally be replaced by "on" with verbs of motion.


This image shows a hat on a man's head.

The hat went on(to) his head.

Here are some more examples:

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.

This image shows socks on a person's feet.

He put the socks on his feet.

Here are some more examples:

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.

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.

This image is a picture of a car driving up and down hills to a city

Drive on! (Or, Keep driving toward the city).

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

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.

This image shows a dog lying in his doghouse.

Spike is lying in his house. (Not into.)

Here are some more examples:

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:

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.

When "move in" is followed by a purpose clause, it has the sense of "approach".
The lion moved in for the kill.

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.

A man is jumping into the pool.

A man is jumping into the pool.

The man is now in the pool in the second picture. His head is sticking out of the water; the rest of his body is submerged.

The man is in the pool.

The person is placing groceries into the shopping bag.   Boxes, cans, and fruits surround the bag and are being placed inside.

The person is placing groceries into the shopping bag.


All of the groceries have now been placed inside of the bag.

The person has completed putting groceries in the bag.

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

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.

Above

Write your name above the line.


Write your name above the line.

Across

Draw a line across the page.


Draw a line across the page.

Against

She leans against the tree.


She leans against the tree.

Ahead of

The girl is ahead of the boy.


The girl is ahead of the boy.

Along

There is lace along the edge of the cloth.

There is lace along the edge of the cloth.

Among

He is among the trees.

He is among the trees.

Around

Draw a circle around the answer.


Draw a circle around the answer.

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—B

Behind

The boy is behind the girl.


The boy is behind the girl.

Below

Write your name below the line.

Write your name below the line.

Beneath

He sat beneath the tree.

He sat beneath the tree.

Beside

The girl is standing beside the boy.

The girl is standing beside the boy.

Between

She is between two trees.

The girl is standing between two trees.

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—F-O

From

He came from the house.

He came from the house.

In front of

The girl is in front of the boy.

The girl is in front of the boy.

Inside

He is inside the house.

He is inside the house.

Nearby

There is a tree nearby the house.

There is a tree nearby the house.

Off

His hat is off.

His hat is off.

Out of

He came out of the house.

He came out of the house.

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions of Spatial Relationship—T-W

Through

She went through the door.

She went through the door.

Toward

She is walking toward the house.

She is walking toward the house.

Under

He is hiding under the table.

He is hiding under the table.

Within

Please mark only within the circle.

Please mark only within the circle.

Contributors:Tony Cimasko.
Summary:

This resource provides guidelines for using prepositions in your writing.

Prepositions of Time, Place, and Introducing Objects

Prepositions

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:

At is used with noon, night, midnight, and with the time of day:

In is used with other parts of the day, with months, with years, with seasons:

To express extended time, English uses the following prepositions: since, for, by, from-to, from-until, during, (with)in.

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.

To express notions of an object being higher than a point, English uses the following prepositions: over, above.

To express notions of an object being lower than a point, English uses the following prepositions: under, underneath, beneath, below.

To express notions of an object being close to a point, English uses the following prepositions: near, by, next to, between, among, opposite.

English uses the following prepositions to introduce objects of the following verbs.

At: glance, laugh, look, rejoice, smile, stare

Of: approve, consist, smell

Of (or about): dream, think

For: call, hope, look, wait, watch, wish