Using Prepositions to Specify Place with Accuracy
Prepositions may tend to be rather short words, but their functions within English sentences are extremely important. They tend to indicate grammatical and semantic relationships, often of a spatial or temporal nature. A preposition is generally used along with a noun, pronoun or noun phrase, which is known as the preposition’s complement or object. The preposition and its complement constitute a prepositional phrase, and prepositional phrases act as adverbs or adjectives to modify other parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, adverbs or adjectives.
The forms of prepositions do not change based on their grammatical function, so they are non-inflected, but their correct use can nonetheless be challenging. It can, for instance, be difficult to choose the right preposition for conveying the ideas you wish to express, and achieving effective phrasing around a preposition can also be a little tricky, especially for authors who are not native speakers of English. A helpful usage hint is found in the very word ‘preposition’: it indicates something placed before something else and is an effective reminder that prepositions usually precede their complements.
A preposition is often used to provide specific information about location or placement and thereby indicate a spatial relationship between the complement of the preposition and what it modifies. Objects might be located in relation to surfaces, for instance, by using the preposition ‘on’ and people in relation to areas or places by using the preposition ‘at.’ ‘The book is still ON her office desk, but she is already AT the library’ demonstrates both. (This sentence also establishes my pattern of using block capitals in my examples for the prepositions under discussion here so that they will be absolutely clear to readers. Please note that such capitals would not be used in normal scholarly prose.) One might alternatively say ‘she is IN the library’ or ‘the book is still IN her office,’ with the preposition ‘in’ implying a sense of containment in each case. ‘Inside’ and ‘within’ also express containment, often of a more specific sort, so ‘the surprise is INSIDE the package’ is correct as well.
Prepositions are also used to express spatial relationships in which an object or person is lower or higher than a given point or another object or person. Various options are available for indicating a lower placement, and the choice in each case should depend on exactly what is intended. My next paragraph, for example, is ‘immediately BENEATH this paragraph’ and ‘people, especially in northern climates, usually sleep UNDERNEATH thick blankets.’ ‘Under’ and ‘below’ can be used with somewhat more general meanings, as in ‘plant roots usually grow UNDER the ground’ and ‘that article was BELOW the acceptable scholarly standard.’
‘Over’ and ‘above’ are the standard prepositions for discussing something or someone perceived to be higher than a given point or another object or person. ‘I aimed to throw the ball OVER the house’ and ‘that village is well ABOVE sea level’ demonstrate a correct use of each. It is worth noting that these prepositions of place can sometimes take on meanings that move beyond physical space. ‘I would choose that option OVER the other’ implies preference, for instance, while a statement such as ‘children should not consider themselves ABOVE their elders’ tends to introduce a sense of intellectual, moral or some other nonphysical superiority.
Finally, prepositions are used to describe spatial relationships of proximity that imply neither higher nor lower locations. ‘The restaurant is NEAR the shopping mall,’ for instance, tells the reader that the restaurant is in close proximity to the mall. It might even be right beside the mall, but to express that more definitely ‘next to’ would be a good choice: ‘the restaurant is NEXT TO the shopping mall.’ ‘The restaurant is BETWEEN the shopping mall and the bowling alley,’ on the other hand, indicates that the restaurant is in the middle with the mall on one side and the bowling alley on the other. ‘The restaurant is AMONG the shops on that side of the road’ is more general – it might be anywhere in the vicinity – but if the restaurant is said to be ‘OPPOSITE the beauty salon,’ it will be found across from the salon, not adjacent to it.
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