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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. 

How to Proofread

Proofreading appears far from foolproof. Even if we can proofread other people’s writing just fine, we tend to miss the simplest mistakes when proofreading our own work.

Well, here is a tried and true, foolproof proofreading1 technique:

  1. Proofread your paper backward. Not like this: “.drawkcab repap ruoy daerfoorP” (silly!)—but sentence by sentence, from the end of the conclusion back to the beginning of the introduction. Proofread the last sentence, then the penultimate (second-to-last) sentence, then the antepenultimate (third-to-last) sentence, and so on.
  2. Read each sentence twice, both times out loud:
    • The first time, read and listen to the whole sentence. Actually use your vocal chords when you move your lips. Read it the way you mean it; read it expressively. Does the sentence say what you want it to say? Does it sound good to you, or does something sound not quite right? Does the punctuation structure the rhythm and meaning the way you want them? (you know, commas for pauses, question marks for questions, etc.). If something sounds off, look away from the page and say, out loud to the air, what you mean. If you need to, rewrite the sentence completely on a separate piece of paper until you get it the way you want it, and only then revise it in your essay.
    • The second time, read the sentence out loud slowly, and point to every single word as you speak it. Many people find this incredibly hard to do. They read at a normal or impatient pace and glide their pencil across the words like a seagull, maybe hovering for a split second over every third or fifth word. That won’t work. At all. Read. every. word. as. if. it. were. its. own. complete. sentence,. and. point. rudely. at. each. word. If you do, you’ll discover all kinds of things you missed on the first pass, like words that you thought were there but aren’t, mismatching pronouns, misspellings, typos (sometimes mind of funny ones [kind of]), and more.

The above method of proofreading works, and it works for good reasons.

Proofreading is checking to make sure that the writing came out correctly on the page. Not surprisingly it only works when you see the words that actually are on the page. And, surprisingly, this is exactly what we do poorly when proofreading our own work. We—all of us.

When we read our own writing, we’re not entirely reading what’s on the page; we are involuntarily replaying in our minds what we were thinking when we wrote it. And we thought the page correctly (as far as we could tell, anyway). So when we read—or rather replay the thoughts of—our writing, the words seem just as correct as when we first thought them.

This is why we usually are able to proofread other people’s writing quite well. The writing came out of somebody else’s head, not ours, and so we actually see the words on the page in front of us.

One key to proofreading your own writing and actually finding and correcting errors is to separate what you wrote from your original thinking. That’s why you proofread from the last sentence to the first: reading backward completely disrupts that original thought process.

Another key to proofreading effectively is to compare the words on the page to what they ought to be. We can do this by using not only one but two of our senses, seeing and hearing. Proofread out loud and you can compare what you are seeing on the page to what you are hearing in your head. So speak up!—at least enough to hear yourself clearly.

Finally, we need to proofread on two levels, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. Each sentence is a complete thought. Reading the sentence aloud for sense, you can hear whether the thought is complete or incomplete, whether it is syntactically and structurally sound, whether its tenses and references are consistent, whether it communicates exactly what you mean. But while concentrating on meaning (i.e. grammar), it is easy to miss small mishaps on the level of individual words and even individual letters (i.e. mechanics). Pointing to each word focuses your attention on the small stuff. Pointing and reading aloud enables you to focus on small stuff and compare what you’re seeing with what you’re hearing. This is why you have to go slowly and point at each word, one at a time. Reading at a normal pace and gliding the pencil across the words has no effect; all you’re doing is creating a blurry comparison, and distracting yourself by waving your pencil, to boot.

This all might sound like an awful lot of trouble. It does take a long time to proofread thoroughly, and after you’ve spent hours writing, it can be excruciating to read the damn thing again—out loud—backward—twice. It’s one thing if you’ve been getting D’s or F’s on papers because of grammatical and mechanical errors; then you’ll want to beef up your proofreading efforts as much as you can. But what if you’re not losing grade points, or only losing what you can live with losing? What if your writing is clear enough for the professor to be able to work out what you meant to say by mentally correcting your grammar for you while reading your paper? Why put in the extra time doing something that—as far as I know—no one enjoys?

Self respect, and the respect of your reader, in that order. That’s why.

Your writing, all writing, has content and form. Broadly speaking (for the purposes of this argument), the information and ideas are the content, and the grammar and mechanics constitute the form that expresses that content. Presenting writing that has errors because you didn’t take the time to find and correct them is analogous to showing up at a party with your butt crack showing and a booger dangling from your nose like a lost participle. Does presenting yourself this way make you a bad person? No, but the presentation is slovenly. An unproofread paper shouts: “I don’t care enough about my own thoughts to care for them, to make them clean and presentable to others in the public sphere.” If you don’t think that professors really feel this way about papers that aren’t proofread—and often, at least while reading them, about their authors—then enjoy your stay in Fantasy Land. And I will go out on a limb and claim that many writers, especially students, feel similarly when they present sloppy writing. I know I do. When I dash something off and present it as a final draft to someone without taking the time to clean it up, I feel a kind of shame. Honestly. (God, I hope after saying all this I’ve found and corrected all the errors in this post. It’s the good-faith effort that counts.)

It may be easiest to discern your own feelings about your writing after you’ve presented a final draft that you truly tried your hardest to make pristine; writing that articulates information and expresses ideas precisely as you meant it to do, writing that speaks what you had in mind, felt in your heart, and intended to communicate. Expect feelings like satisfaction, pride, and authority.


  1. This assumes you have already revised and read the paper through for sense. All you’re doing here is catching and fixing errors. 

Common Grammar Errors

Comma Splice — example:

In English my name means hope, in Spanish it means too many letters.


Diction (informal or incorrect word choice) — examples:

English class sucks.

This essay will be about the recline and fall of the Roman empire.


Incorrect Modifier (adjective, adverb) — example:

I am feeling good today.


Modifier Position (dangling modifier, misplace modifier) — examples:

(Misplaced:) The ex-convict threatened to kill the district attorney at least twice.

(Dangling:) Driving to the old house, the family cat got loose in the car.


Possession — example:

It was my great-grandmothers sewing machine.


Preposition — example:

At what city is the Empire State Building?


Pronoun Case — examples:

Open the door, Norton; it’s me.

Neither Hamlet nor Macbeth had the luxury of talking about their problems to a psychologist.


Punctuation — examples:

After you back out of that space I’ll pull in.

The bank, which was robbed was closed for two weeks.

Maxwell Edison, was a famous mass murderer.


Run-On Sentence — examples:

The story goes she never forgave him she looked out the window her whole life.

The story goes she never forgave him and she looked out the window her whole life.


Sentence Fragment — example:

If I were a carpenter and you were a lady.


Verb Form — example:

Any of the books that you find in there are mine.


Verb Tense — example:

When he looked at the car carefully, he noticed that the engine is missing.


Spelling — examples:

Your bark is worse then your bite.

If there their by too o’clock, then I’ll be they’re by to o’clock two.

(Correction: If they’re there by two o’clock, then I’ll be there by two o’clock too.)

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