How can we define the rules for placing a preposition in a sentence? Before a noun? After a verb? One of the additions to the second edition of Word Order in English Sentences is a guide to prepositions. Though they are often connected to other parts of a sentence, such as noun phrases, and often have specific or flexible rules, like adverbs, prepositions have some general rules that can help with understanding how they fit into a sentence, explained in detail below.
Where a prepositions placed in a sentence?
Usually, prepositions connect things to other sentence components – objects, ideas, anything typically created by a noun phrase. As such, they usually come before a noun.
- There was a spider on her back.
- It was cold at the top of the hill.
- They met in the old barn.
As a general rule, the preposition should come directly before its complement. This means the preposition is essentially part of its noun phrase, and can be moved as part of a noun phrase.
- We had coffee on the beach. OR On the beach, we had coffee.
- There was mud in my eyes. In my eyes!
- The young squirrel buried her nuts under a pile of leaves last autumn. I looked under the pile of leaves. Under the pile of leaves there were nuts.
Note that because the preposition shows a connection, if you replace the rest of a noun phrase with a pronoun you still need the preposition:
- Under the pile of leaves. becomes Under it.
Prepositions do not always move with their complement, however, and can be found at the end of a clause. This is more typical in informal language.
- This is the book I was looking for.
- Who would you like to talk to?
- I don’t know what that film was about.
There are four main situations where this happens, question words, passive structures, relative clauses, and infinitives, which are covered below.
Prepositions in Questions
Questions formed with question words, where the question word replaces the object of the preposition, often have the preposition at the end of the clause.
- Where did they go to?
- Who are you talking about?
- When are you staying until?
- How much did you buy that for?
This also happens with indirect questions.
- I don’t know where we are going to.
- It was unclear who they were talking about.
Questions can also be formed with only a question word and preposition, when the verb is understood. In this case, the preposition normally comes after the question word, but can often be reversed:
- Where to? / To where?
- What with? / With what?
- How much for? / For how much?
In formal language, prepositions are often placed further forwards in questions, coming before the question word.
- For whom was this dinner made?
- About which opera are you talking?
This is less common and can sound quite unnatural, and with some question forms (such as what…for and where…to) it is especially uncommon.
Prepositions in Passive Structures
In passive structures, the preposition stays with the verb.
- He stayed in the hotel. The hotel was stayed in.
- They fell on the mat. The mat was fallen on.
If you create a passive structure from an active structure and keep the original subject (as an object), it will follow the preposition.
- My father walked on the hill. The hill was walked on by my father.
Even in formal language, in passive structures prepositions stay with verbs.
- The lady was spoken about in hushed tones. (NOT The lady about which was spoken…)
Prepositions in Relative Clauses
Prepositions normally go at the end of a relative clause.
- That’s the girl I danced with.
- I found the book I was looking for.
This may be considered informal. In formal use, the preposition can come earlier, before a relative pronoun.
- That’s the girl with whom I danced.
- I found the book for which I was looking.
As with formal questions, this use is less common.
Prepositions in Infinitive Structures
When infinitives are used as complements, for example following stative verbs (to be), they can be followed by a preposition.
- She was not prepared to swim on.
- The king is a delightful man to talk with.
Placing the preposition before an infinitive structure is very formal.
- The king is a delightful man with whom to talk.
This guide has been taken from my grammar book, Word Order in English Sentences – if you’d like to learn more about the components of English sentences and how they fit together structurally, check out the rest of the book!