Definition of term Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions can be described as small words which serve to anchor in time and space – in, to, at, for, by, of, out, with, over, under, between, across, beside, along, until, during, through, before, without, throughout, atop, beneath… (although the most frequent preposition in English, of, just to be perverse, is neither spatial nor temporal).

The following test frames usually work for prepositions:

______ the road

on the road, beside the road, under the road, over the road, to the road, through the road,
across the road, beneath the road, atop the road

______ the hour

on the hour, within the hour, by the hour, for the hour, of the hour, at the hour, until the hour,
during the hour, through the hour, throughout the hour

Prepositions can also occur in groups, known as complex prepositions:

in front of, by way of, with a view to, in lieu of

Prepositions typically precede nouns, and we call the whole construction a Prepositional Phrase:

by the platform

Prepositions sometimes govern units containing a verb, and we call those constructions Prepositional Clauses:

by running quickly

prepositions

Prepositions also sit after some verbs, which are known as Phrasal Verbs:

to go out, to go in, to go up, to go down, to go through, to do in, to put up, to put up with, to let in, to let up...


University College London's
The Internet Grammar of English links:

Prepositions

Defining a Phrase

Demonstration of Prepositional Phrases

Take a look at the following extract from a television programme made by John Betjeman in 1972, about people going to Southend on Sundays (The text starts at 00.41 and goes to 04.55. The programme continues til 14.07):

Thank God it's Sunday! by John Betjeman (1972)

Here is the TV script. The Prepositional Phrases in Betjeman’s commentary are highlighted in green (with a few other prepositional constructions in blue)

Vision Commentary

Aerial tracking shot of Fenchurch Street Station and along the line.

What do most Londoners do [on Sunday]?

They leave it.

Most comfortably of course [by rail] [from Fenchurch Street]

London houses and flats seen from the train.

[over brick arches].

Who would want to stay behind [in an inhuman slab] [of council flats], built [in the priggish …

People travelling in a bus.

A bicycle on top of a car.

… 1960s], when sea and country call?

We leave [by every means] we can.

A station and rail track seen from the train.

Close-ups of a bus and car wheels.

Swift, swiftly eastwards [through Stepney, Barking, Dagenham, Upminster].

Electric railway, diesel, coach and bus.

Car and motorbike, bypass and high road.

Outer London suburbs seen from the train, revealing Essex.

Eastward and further east [until the last brick box] is [out of sight], and then we see the wide enormous marsh [of Essex],

A boy on a motorbike and a family in a car.

London’s nearest real countryside, and join the others speeding [to Southend].

Interior of a family in a Southend Pier tram.

The sea from the window.

Hold on, what’s that?

A different sort [of noise].

And now we’re [in a different sort] [of train].

We’re travelling [down Southend Pier] [by tram], [for a mile and a third] [towards the coast] [of France].

The longest pier [in the world].

Was it perhaps a mid-Victorian dream [of bringing England] [close …

A couple walking along the pier in the wind.

… to France] [at last], and getting there [on foot]?

Or was it to build an elongated jetty …

A man walking under the pier.

… [for vessels] making [for the Thames’s mouth]?

Men walking under the pier. Mid-shot of the pier end and close-up of fishermen’s faces and tackle.

[At any rate], today [upon the pier] they sell a map which shows you where to find the different kinds [of fish] the estuary yields and what’s the bait to use.

[To southward] [from Southend] [across the Thames …]

Long shot of a boat against oil refineries.

… you faintly see [along the Kentish coast] the oil refineries which work [on Sunday] – give me Sunday here,

A man sitting on the pier.

A child with a thermos flask and men fishing.

sniffing the salt sea air

and salt sea water.

Sundays [of patience] waiting [for a bite].

A couple pushing a pram.

A courting couple.

Sunday the day when fathers push the pram.

Sunday [for lovers] walking [in the wind].

A father running with two small children.

Sunday [for running] to catch the lunchtime tram.

A tram.

And missing it.

Leaving the terminus.

It doesn’t matter here, time’s [of no consequence] [in kind Southend].

An unpretentious breezy friendly place.

I like Southend.

East London [on the sea].

The reverse of the tram trundling back along the pier in the sea.

Southend where Charlie Chaplin as a child first saw the real sea and thought it was a wall [of sky-blue water].

Mid-shot of a ferris wheel.

 

(Of course is an Adverbial Phrase (more on adverbials in Unit 17); stay behind, hold on, make for, are Phrasal Verbs; to stay, to use, to build, to find, to catch are what linguists call ‘to + base form’ (you might know it as the infinitive) a nonfinite form (finite means being marked for person, tense and number, so nonfinite forms are timeless – Betjeman is talking about all Sundays); of bringing England close to France is a nonfinite Prepositional Clause, due to the presence of bringing.)

Prepositions anchor a text in time and place. Here, the time is Sundays, the place consists of various locations on the way to, and at, Southend. If you run your eye over the text in green, you’ll see that this is the part of the text that details those times and places.

Literary Exercise

Below, H. G. Wells describes a monkey-parade in Penge. (A monkey-parade was an evening teenagers’ promenade. Monkey-parades died out after World War II.) Can you identify the prepositional phrases and clauses?
First read the text, then click below to see the prepositional phrases made explicit.

In the following, prepositional phrases are expressed in green and other prepositional constructions in blue.

It was [in that phase] [of an urban youth’s development], the phase [of the cheap cigarette], that this thing happened. One evening I came [by chance] [on a number of young people] promenading [by the light] [of a row] [of shops] [towards Beckington], and, [with all the glory] [of a glowing cigarette] [between my lips], I joined their strolling number. These twilight parades [of young people], youngsters chiefly [of the lower middle-class], are one [of the odd social developments] [of the great suburban growths] – unkindly critics, blind [to the inner meanings] [of things], call them, I believe, Monkeys’ Parades – the shop apprentices, the young work girls, the boy clerks and so forth, stirred [by mysterious intimations], spend their first-earned money [upon collars and ties, chiffon hats, smart lace collars, walking-sticks, sunshades or cigarettes], and come valiantly [into the vague transfiguring mingling] [of gaslight and evening], to walk up and down, to eye meaningly, even to accost and make friends. It is a queer instinctive revolt [from the narrow limited friendless homes] [in which so many find themselves], a going out [towards something, romance] if you will, [beauty], that has suddenly become a need – a need that hitherto has lain dormant and unsuspected. They promenade.

Vulgar! – it is as vulgar as the spirit that calls the moth abroad [in the evening] and lights the body [of the glow-worm] [in the night]. I made my way [through the throng], a little contemptuously as became a public schoolboy, my hands [in my pockets] – none [of your cheap canes] [for me!] – and very careful [of the lie] [of my cigarette] [upon my lips]. And two girls passed me, one a little taller than the other, with dim warm-tinted faces [under clouds of dark hair] and [with dark eyes like pools reflecting stars].

I half turned, and the shorter one glanced back [at me] [over her shoulder] – I could draw you now the pose [of her cheek and neck and shoulder] – and instantly I was as passionately [in love] [with the girl] as I have ever been before or since, as any man ever was [with any woman]. I turned about and followed them, I flung away my cigarette ostentatiously and lifted my school cap and spoke [to them].


Hide explicit prepositional phrases.

Click here to see the prepositional phrases in the above text made explicit.


What is their effect? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Commentary

The Prepositional Phrases in this extract are governed by the prepositions in, of, by, on, towards, with, between, to, upon, into, from, through, under, over. (Note: to walk up, to walk down, to go out, to call abroad, to glance back, to turn about, to fling away – these are phrasal verbs made up of [verb + preposition], all linking the action to the place.) The promenading boys and girls themselves are mentioned in Noun Phrases, but the Prepositional Phrases tell us why, how, and with what they attract attention. Why: as with other creatures (moths, monkeys, glow-worms), they are stirred [by mysterious intimations], [towards something, romance, beauty]; where: [into the vague transfiguring mingling] [of gaslight and evening], [by the light] [of a row] [of shops] [towards Beckington]; how: with various accessories [of the cheap cigarette], [of a glowing cigarette], [upon collars and ties, chiffon hats, smart lace collars, walking-sticks, sunshades or cigarettes], [of your cheap canes], [of my cigarette]. The details of the mating ritual (in which cigarettes played quite a role, hence the five mentions) are largely communicated via the Prepositional Phrase.

Why is the observation that this particular information is conveyed in this syntactic construction of interest? Wells has to work hard here, because to the contemporary readership in 1910 the term monkey parade was well-known and derogatory (compare cattle market today). Debutantes’ balls, although having exactly the same function, were not derided as monkey parades, because they were about securing the future of the wealth of the upper classes. Wells is making a causal relationship between the boys and girls and their accoutrements: it is because they are boys and girls that they have, as a biological imperative, to try to attract one another. The schoolboy’s use of his cigarette to heighten his attraction – to look cool – is both aligned with the natural world, the moths and the glow-worms, and with high culture (valiantly, beauty, romance; as any man ever was with any woman). Prepositions are linking devices, relating one thing to another. Wells uses them to persuade the reader that the vulgar monkey parade is, on the one hand, no different from a bird’s bright plumage or mating dance, and on the other, in the tradition of literary culture.

Teaching Point

Prepositional Phrases convey detail that anchors the text in time and space. They are in almost every text and very easy to overlook. They point you to when, where and how – so if you find a preponderance of prepositions, it’s worth considering their focus.