Understanding Prepositions: The Most Misunderstood Words in English

Prepositions That Occur in Writing

Understanding Prepositions in Use

Understanding prepositions and their use can be one of the more difficult parts of reading and writing. Prepositions and prepositional phrases exist in almost all sentences in the English language, but they seem to almost disappear through sheer volume: by being everywhere, you might not notice they’re here (this massive sentence has already used four of them… make that five).

Because of their ubiquity, understanding what prepositions are and what they do can be a bit challenging. Indeed, it can be frustrating for students preparing for college-entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.  This is because these pesky parts of speech elude the classroom for years. So here’s a quick refresher course on what they are, which are the most common, and how they usually show up on these tests.

What is a Preposition?

Preposition words define the relationship between a clause and a noun or noun phrase (like “the kids in homeroom”). A clause contains a combination of a subject and verb, like “I got candy.” A prepositional phrase exists when the noun or noun phrase has a preposition before it to define its relationship. Take the sentence, “I got candy for the kids in homeroom.” For is the preposition that begins the prepositional phrase, for the kids in homeroom.

The prepositions you might remember being taught when you were younger likely had to do with directions. These include words like above, below, under, over, and between. However, the most common prepositions explain more common relationships, like where something is from or what it is for. So the most common prepositions are the words of, from, and for. However, prepositions can and do describe relationships of all types.

Why do Prepositions Matter?

Why does this matter if you’re take the SAT or ACT? The primary reason to identify prepositional phrases is to better understand the subject and verb of sentences or clauses. Many prepositional phrases on these the SAT and other tests serve as points of confusion. Often, these phrases serve only to create difficulty in the reader’s determination of which noun is the subject. 

Tip: When you see a prepositional phrase in a sentence, skip it in order to find the subject and verb. You should do this because subjects cannot be in prepositional phrases. Take, for instance, “The coyotes from the Mojave Desert who live in the sands and play do not seem to like visitors.” The subject is coyotes, for they are those who do not seem to like visitors. The Mojave Desert and the nouns that followed it were in a prepositional phrase or another modifying phrase, and they could not have the subject within them.

Good luck studying, and come back soon for more quick, useful lessons on the Education One blog!