What Is a Preposition? Let’s Go Inside and See

Prepositions—e.g. “over,” “under,” “before,” “after,” “in,” “on,” “of,” and dozens more in English—are words that denote relationship between things; things including people and places;—you know, nouns. When handling prepositions it’s especially important to remember that actual people, places, and things (including ideas and other non-material yet no less real things) are what we mean when we refer to “nouns.” When thinking about prepositions if we bring to mind the real things, places, and people that are in relationship, we can accomplish two things: (1) understand the meaning of the preposition we’re using, and (2) rediscover the living pulse of language.

But before we get into the woo woo stuff, let’s solidify what prepositions are and how they work. (For your reference, here is a handy list of prepositions.) It was first explained to me that prepositions are “Anything you can do with a mountain”1: you can go over a mountain, tunnel under a mountain, hammer your way through a mountain (if you’re John Henry), and so on. Over at the website Grammar Revolution, you can see a similar graphical representation of prepositions using an apple and a worm. So far these mountain and apple examples are showing relationships of space: if you’re under a mountain you’re either a skilled spelunker or you’re screwed (like Jonah, when he found himself buried under a mountain), but in either case the mountain is spatially above you and you are spatially below the mountain. But it’s also possible to use prepositions to show relationships of time, as in the question, “I wonder what was here before this mountain rose up from the earth?”

Indeed, the apple and the mountain might be prepositionally related in various ways. The apple could be of the mountain (or of a tree that is of the mountain). The mountain existed long before the apple (and yet, should a meteor suddenly flatten the mountain, it’s possible that the apple might continue to persist after the mountain is gone). The apple might be rolling down the mountain. The apple might be thrown at the mountain. The apple might be formerly of the mountain, have rolled down the mountain, been picked up by a girl who lives in a cave of the mountain, been rejected because it is wormy, and at this very moment be poised to be thrown at the mountain in disgust.

Most of the prepositions in the previous paragraph show relationships of space, and a couple show relationships of time. The preposition “of” (and some others, depending on context) shows a different kind of relationship: a familial or genetic one. Think of the prepositional phrase that concludes the first paragraph of this post: “the living pulse of language.” There is a necessary connotation of oneness: the pulse and the language that the pulse is of participate the same existence; the pulse being spoken of is orphaned without the language that it is of.2 In the phrase “the Queen of England,” the Queen does not belong to England as a possession so much as she is inseparably related to the land of that country; she can only be the Queen of England and of no other land, just as she can only be the daughter of her mother and the mother of her children. What’s important here is the nature of the relationship per se, not whether the relationship between the Queen and England is more like the relationship between a daughter and a mother or more like that between a mother and a child. The essence of the preposition is in the relationship that exists between the two related things.

In this respect, the preposition “between” might be the queen of prepositions. For the relational meaning of any preposition is neither the one thing being brought into relationship nor the other; that is, the meaning of “of” belongs neither to the Queen nor to England, but is something else in itself. But what? How can we best grasp the meanings of prepositions? This might sound like a daft question not worth asking, but many English teachers have surely begun to notice a marked deterioration in the use of prepositions by their students in recent years, including my favorite pet peeve, the oxymoronic “based off of.”3

One of the most effective ways to choose the right preposition is to gesture with your hands. Try it. Use your hands to place one thing in another. No, really, don’t just imagine it in your mind; physically use your hands to do it. Prepositions are physical. When you walk alongside a fence, for instance, you are walking a long sidealong the side ofalong beside that fence. Gesture “alongside” with your hands. Gesture “this is for you” with your hands.

Physicalizing prepositions can help us understand them deeply. You can use your hands to gesture “between.” You can also stand in a doorway for a full minute—neither on one side nor on the other side—but right between. Try it with the outside door of your house or apartment building or dorm. Stand in the doorway between inside and outside. What is that experience of between-ness like? The doorway is analogous to the preposition: it establishes a certain relationship between the space on one side and the space on the other. There could be a quite different relationship between those two spaces; there could be a wall between them; there could be a partial wall that ends, and where the wall ends the two spaces that were separated then come together and become the same space.

Using our hands doesn’t work as well for prepositions of time. The only gesture we can make to show “before” is a spatial one, as in the lyric from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

That’s a spatial “before.” But to experience the sense of time in “before” as well as in “after,” we must employ memory. Without resorting to photographic records, compare the way a place appears before and after. Before and after what? you may ask. Try thinking about “before” as before after, and “after” as after before, in pure relationship to each other. You might recall a room that was painted, or a field that recently was snow-covered but now is beginning to bud with early spring. Contemplate the experience of the place changing from before to after; the relationship between the before and after appearance of the place. Try to hover temporally in between the two different appearances of the place, which, like photographs, are static. The in-between time relationships of the prepositions “before” and “after” themselves are not static: “before” moves from later to earlier, while “after” moves from earlier to later.

If you sit meditatively with prepositions, they begin to pulse with living meanings, meanings that inspire the kind of understanding that comes from lived experience.

Here are some mind-bending prepositional gedankenexperiments to take with you. For most interesting results, contemplate one for two uninterrupted minutes per day for several days, before moving on to try another. Focus matters here.

  • Pick a preposition, any preposition, and contemplate its meaning in and of itself.
  • I’m not sure why, but a whole class of mine once got freaked out by this preposition in particular; so consider yourself warned. Contemplate the meaning of the preposition “in.” (Is it scary? Really?)
  • There’s a spatial sense of being with a friend (as opposed to being apart), but when you reassure your friend that you are with him or her, what more than bare proximity do you mean?
  • Contemplate the relational meaning of the preposition “because.”
  • When you say you are thinking of a number from one to ten, what does it mean to think of something?

  1. Dr. Scott McPartland 

  2. In preemptive retort to grammar tyrants who will brook no prepositions at the ends of sentences, I quote Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 

  3. Think about it: based and off of are contradictories. 


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