The Writer’s Toolbox – Bits and Pieces: A Primer on Parts of Speech

Prepositional Phrases

Last week we returned to the grammar books for a quick refresher on prepositions. To briefly recap: prepositions are words that describe the relationship between a noun or pronoun (object) and another word in a sentence. Prepositions are almost always found in word groupings called prepositional phrases; this week we’ll take a quick look at prepositional phrases and the roles they can play in sentences.

Prepositional phrases
The preposition is usually part of a prepositional phrase, which consists of the preposition, the noun or pronoun object, and any modifiers, or words describing the object (adverbs or adjectives). Once you’ve found a preposition and its object, you can easily figure out the rest of the prepositional phrase.

Example A: I left my wallet at the library. Here, the preposition is at and the object is library. The is a modifier, since it describes library, so the entire prepositional phrase is at the library.

Example B: The clock in the bedroom was my grandmother’s. Here, the preposition is in and the object is bedroom. The is a modifier, since it describes bedroom, so the entire prepositional phrase is in the bedroom.

Prepositional phrases as parts of speech
Prepositional phrases are often used as parts of speech themselves. This sounds more complicated than it is. When you see a prepositional phrase, imagine circling it and pretending it’s one word. What role is that word playing? That’s the function the whole prepositional phrase is serving.

Example C: I left my wallet at the library. As we know from above, the prepositional phrase is at the library. Circling it and replacing it with an X standing in for the phrase gets us this: I left my wallet X.

Here, the X?the prepositional phrase?answers the question where?; it enhances our understanding of the verb left, so it’s functioning as an adverb.

Let’s try another one:

Example D: The clock in the bedroom was my grandmother’s. The prepositional phrase is in the bedroom; replacing it with X gives us this: The clock X was my grandmother’s.

What does the X do here? It describes the noun clock, so it’s functioning as an adjective.

These examples show prepositional phrases functioning as adverbs and adjectives. Prepositional phrases can also stand in for nouns, but that type of construction is rarely used today.

Phrases within phrases
Sometimes you’ll encounter multiple strings of prepositional phrases, including phrases within phrases. The best way to handle these is look at the outermost prepositional phrase first, analyze its function in the sentence, and then move inward to the next prepositional phrase.

Example E: I stepped around the puddle in the middle of the garden.

Stumped? The main prepositional phrase, which describes the verb stepped, is around the puddle in the middle of the garden. Isn’t that three prepositions rather than one? Yes?but remember that a prepositional phrase contains a preposition, its object, and any modifiers. Prepositional phrases can act as modifiers?adjectives and adverbs?and here in the middle of the garden is a modifier of the object, puddle.

Moving inward, in the middle of the garden presents a similar situation. In is the preposition; middle is the object; and both the and of the garden are modifying, or describing, middle. Of the garden is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective; and of course it’s a simple prepositional phrase in its own right.

Prepositional phrases can get still more complex, but unless you’re taking a course in diagramming English sentences, you probably won’t have cause to worry about them. For now, what’s important is this: a prepositional phrase is made of the preposition, the object, and any modifiers, and these modifiers can include further prepositional phrases themselves.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2. Or visit her website.

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