Grammar Jargon – What the heck are prepositions

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another rendition of Grammar Jargon. As usual we will explain one grammatical term in “normal” words and today we will take on the question:

“What exactly are prepositions???”

I am sure you have heard the word before and you will probably be able to give some examples of prepositions in English. But could you tell precisely what they actually are? And if so could you tell whether before is one or not? If not you will be able after you’ve finished this article. We will look at their function, their shared characteristics, we will compare German and English prepositions a bit and we will of course see why knowing about prepositions can be helpful. So let’s dive right in. 

Prepositions play an essential role in many European languages and you will find some of them in the top 10 of the most frequently used words for English, French and German (those are the ones I checked). And prepositions are causing A LOT of trouble because they are hard to translate.
The correct translation depends pretty much only on context. One example:

  • I am disappointed in you.
  • Ich bin von dir enttäuscht.

That does not mean that von means in. Actually von does not mean in most of the time… only in this context it does. The fact that it is in in English gives little to no indication what the German construction will be. Why does it have to be that complicated? Of course because anything else would be boring… It would not? It would be awesome? Well, whatever…  we need to deal with it as it is: MESSY.
When you learn a new language, don’t try to hard to find ONE translation for a preposition. German is especially hard because we have a large number of prepositions we frequently use. In French you can get very far with just de and à. Of course there are many more but you won’t need ’em as much.
So try to get the rough idea/ideas a preposition represents as opposed to writing one word in your vocabulary book. I consider myself fluent in English and yet I have huge issues finding the correct preposition at times. So be easy on yourself and do not despair. You will get the hang of it.

Anyway. What are prepositions? The word itself suggests that it is something standing in front of something… PRE-positions… and yes: prepositions do that. But so do adjectives and articles in English and German.
Prepositions are actually just one subgroup of the so called adpositions. Those would be things that stand in front of and or behind stuff (if you wanne know more.. here is the Wikipedia-article but you MUST speak jargon for that one). So apparently the position is not the defining factor…. what all prepositions, postpositions, circumpositions, ontopoffositions and makesomemoreupositions have in common is: their function. On a side-note… I will continue to speak about PRE-positions but it is also valid for the “other-positions”.

Function of prepositions

What prepositions do is expressing relations between things and or persons in or to the sentence. They work like your assistant movie director. You appear on the set and you have all the stuff that will play a role in your sentence hanging around… prepositions help you to organize them and express the relations between them and the story. This is easiest to understand in the local domain.

  • The cup is on the table.
  • The cup is under the table.
  • The cup is above the table.

The prepositions are the only differences between those 3 sentences and they put table and cup in different relations to one another.
Often prepositions work together with the verb to convey whatever you are trying to say. In those cases it might not be immediately obvious that the relations between things or persons is expressed… but in a way it is.

  • I go to the theater.
  • I go behind the theater.
  • I go around the theater.

My location relative to the theater is not fixed here but the preposition still gives you the idea how I am moving by relating the movement to go to theater.

Of course there are not only local prepositions. Another preposition-heavy domain is time.

  • Thomas will stay till midnight.
  • Maria has been waiting for an hour for him to leave.

I admit it is not very obvious which relations are expressed here. The actions are related to a point in time or a duration by the preposition. Different prepositions express different relation of an event or action in relation to time.

  • I will go to London in 3 days.
  • I will go to London for 3 days.
  • I will go to London after 3 days.

Here we have the duration 3 days, and the prepositions relate my action to go to that duration. Now what about this one:

  • Before I go to bed, I (usually) brush my teeth.

Seemingly before is relating something here and would thus be considered a preposition BUT …. I’ll pause to build some gravity…. BUT in this example before is relating 2 actions. We have 2 life action verbs here to go and to brush, 2 full sentences.

  • I go to bed.
  • I usually brush my teeth.

If 2 sentences are related and joined this is done by conjunctions. So the before in that example is NO preposition. A preposition is always followed by a thing or a person it refers to.
Besides time and place prepositions are used in … any other situation pretty much, basically whenever a relation of entities (persons or things) has to be expressed. Here are some more abstract examples.

  • I am against this plan.
  • Grammar is boring to a lot of people.
  • Thomas had an argument with his girlfriend.
  • Thomas had an argument about his girlfriend.

Recognizing prepositions

Now that we know the function let’s take a quick look at the characteristics all prepositions share and then we should be experts already.
All the examples so far suggest that prepositions are small words like of, to, from, by etc. That is not wrong but of course it is not the whole truth. Not all short words are prepositions but more importantly English also considers 2 or 3 word phrases a preposition as long as they do preposition-things… relating things, that is.

  • Thomas had an argument next to his girlfriend.
  • Thomas had an argument in front of his girlfriend.
  • According to the examples Thomas argues a lot.

Me personally, I would disagree with this. To me the preposition in the last example is just to while I perceive according as a form of the verb to accord  . What I kind of “hear” is:

  • It accords to the examples that Thomas argues a lot.

This is probably because I am a German native speaker and German doesn’t really have 2 or 3 word prepositions. German prepositions are always just one word.
But English linguistics see it differently and … why not. Phrases like according to or as of  are so fixed that they feel like one word.

Anyway, there is one thing all prepositions share besides the function: they don’t make sense all by themselves… or in other words… you can not answer a question just with a preposition… except for question asking for that preposition of course ;).

  • Where do you place the cup?
  • On.
  • “Where is the car.”
  • Behind.

Even if you know that it is parked behind the house, this doesn’t feel like a genuine thing to say.  So this is actually a good way to determine whether something is a preposition or not. If whatever you need to categorize can stand alone or does work as answer, it is not a preposition. Let’s look at the word we have looked at before:  before.

  • I want to finish my work before lunch break.
  • I have done that before.

The first before clearly is a preposition. It relates finishing work to lunch break. In the second sentence it stands alone and it still makes sense so the second before is NOT a preposition. It is a temporal adverb, that is a “name” for a point in time Other examples for those adverbs would be today or later.
So as already grazed a word can function as a preposition but it can also act as other word types.  Preposition is thus a label for a word in action rather than the word itself.
Now you may say, that you don’t need to know the word type as long as you understand a word. That is of course true as long as you speak English but when you start to learn a foreign language, for example… hmmm… let’s say German, determining whether something is or is not a preposition can be very helpful.

German and English prepositions – a comparison

As we have learned, in English the same word or phrase can be a preposition at times and something else at others – what matters is the FUNCTION it has in the given situation. As already mentioned this is a bit different in German. You will mostly have different words for different functions.   A nice example for this are wordpairs like hinten and hinter or unten and unter. Many students of German struggle to determine what the difference is, and the difference is the function… one of those words is a preposition and the other is the adverb… you can read more about this in this article.
This is why it is beneficial to know whether your English word is a preposition in your sentence or not. Let’s stick with the word before.

  • Ich will meine Arbeit vor dem Mittagessen fertig machen.
  • I want to finish my work before lunch.
  • Ich habe das schon mal gemacht.
  • I have done that before.
  • Bevor ich schlafen gehe, putze ich mir die Zähne.
  • Before I go to bed, I brush my teeth.

Before has to be translated differently depending on the function and if you were to mix something up it would sound really strange to the point where it is hard to understand.
You need to know/feel/understand the function to translate correctly.

Another special feature of German is that our prepositions really are ONLY ONE WORD. This is partly the reason why we seemingly have so many. We do have many one word prepositions. But if you make a list of all phrases in English that serve as preposition you will have an equal number. Same goes for French. Seemingly there are just à and de but as soon as you count all the 2 and 3 word phrases you wind up with just as many as in German. After all it wouldn’t make sense that one language would have way more ways to express relations as another. German just has one word for each situation while English and French use combinations of words. Some real life examples:

  • My Bentley is parked in front of my Ferrari.
  • Mein Bentley ist vor meinem Ferrari geparkt.
  • My diamond-studded cup is next to my other diamond-studded cup.
  • Meine diamantenbesetzteTasse ist neben meiner anderen diamantenbesetzten Tasse.

Are prepositions necessary?

Despite the important role prepositions play in organizing the stuff in your sentences, the answer to that question is a clear: NO. There are other ways to do the job and you don’t need to look at some ancient native American language for prove… with those you can prove way more puzzling theories…
Many European languages like Russian, Turkish or Finnish do in varying degree  use another way to do the job. And what is this shining knight which could spare you all the prep-hassle? Yeah it’s your favorite … cases. They do the same thing. Finnish has 6 location related cases. Using a case means adding a certain ending to a word. Let’s say we have cup and house and the relation is cup in house, English uses the preposition in. Finnish just adds an ending to house and that’s it. They say (in translation)

  • Cup is housessa.

Another example… instead of with me they would say this:

  • I am going to the movies… do you want to come me-lla ?

A language usually doesn’t exclusively rely on cases OR prepositions. Also Finnish has prepositions.  Sometimes the same relation can be expressed in both ways. An example exists even in English.

  • Maria‘s car is blue.
  • The car of Maria is blue.

The s in the first sentence is sort of a Genitive case marker and Genitive indicates possession.. also in German.
So you can roughly say that the more cases a language has the less prepositions you will see.
But cases are not the only way to dodge prepositions. Technically you could invent a new verb for ANY movement… for example  to gola is to go to and gota is go around and goni is to go in and so on…

  • I gola library.

This would give you a huge vocabulary but as soon as you use a system and use the same endings for the same direction you will end up with something that is not so far from a preposition… the only difference is that it is written in one word with verb… kind of like these German compound verbs :)… so you see… cases, prepositions, new verbs… it is all sort of the same after all. If you want to express millions of things you need a certain number of tools. How these tools look doesn’t matter… they just need to do the job.

And this concludes this Grammar Jargon section. Remember that prepositions express in what relation a thing or a person stands with the rest of the sentence. They cannot solely answer a question. If a word you thought to be a preposition IS a valid answer,it will not be a preposition in that situation. Thus words in action can be prepositions,words in a dictionary can’t. A preposition is defined by what it does, not what it looks like.

If you have questions or you need me to clarify something, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.