Many writers are wary of prepositions and prepositional phrases. They’ve got to be hard, right? After all, “prepositional” is a five-syllable mouthful of a word.
Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Many writers make mistakes with prepositional phrases.
The good news? There’s an easy rule that will keep you out of trouble. And here’s even better news: There’s also an easier rule that works maybe 99.5% of the time.
Let’s get started.
Prepositions are small, everyday words that indicate direction or purpose. The English language has dozens of them. For now, let’s stick to six: in by for with to of.
Prepositions are rarely used by themselves. You wouldn’t say “I went skiing with.” Expressions like “with Mary,” “to the store,” “for a wedding gift, “by myself” and so on are prepositional phrases.
There are a couple of general rules of thumb that work really well with prepositional phrases. Take your pick! Either one will help you get your sentences right.
- Skip the prepositional phrases to get the grammar right
- Go to the beginning of the sentence.
Maybe once or twice a year you’ll come across a sentence that works differently. That means most of the time you can use one of these rules, and you’ll be fine. (If you’re curious about the exception, click here and read Rule 6.)
Let’s try a couple of examples.
The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.
What will you be emptying and moving – the glass doors or the bookcase? You can either go to the beginning of the sentence (“bookcase”) or cross out “with the glass doors.”
If you go with crossing out “with the glass doors,” here’s what your sentence will look like:
with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.
Answer: The bookcase NEEDS. So here’s your sentence:
The bookcase with the glass shelves needs to be emptied and moved. CORRECT
Let’s try another one:
Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.
What caused the problems – department policies or misunderstanding? Again, you can either go to the beginning of the sentence (misunderstanding) or cross out “of departmental policies.”
Let’s try crossing out “of departmental policies”:
of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.
Answer: Misunderstanding HAS. So here’s your sentence:
Misunderstanding of department policies has caused many problems recently. CORRECT
To learn more about prepositional phrases, click here and read Rule 4.
One more thought: There’s a reason why writers often have difficulty with prepositional phrases. Most people aren’t used to thinking about parts of sentences. It’s not a normal activity. (When was the last time you found yourself thinking, “Hey! That was a prepositional phrase!” during a conversation?)
You’re learning a new skill. Be patient with yourself, and keep reviewing and practicing. After a while it will become second nature. That’s a promise!