Verb Modifiers: Prepositional Phrases


Verb Modifiers: Prepositional Phrases

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common modifiers in the English language: prepositional phrases. (Quick definition: a phrase is a word or group of words that functions as a unit in a sentence.[1])

A prepositional phrase is made of up two parts: a preposition and a noun or noun phrase.

Some common singe-word prepositions:

Above Across At Behind Below
By Down For From In
Into Like Near Of On
Off Over Sine Through To
Until Up Upon With Within

There are lots and lots more.

There are also two and three-word prepositions

According to As for Because of Next to Except for
Thanks to Up to In accordance with In case of In charge of
In lieu of In search of In spite of On account of On behalf of


Prepositional phrases (the word preposition comes from the fact that the words “pre-position” nouns) can modify BOTH nouns (and noun phrases) and verbs (and verb phrases), so they are doubly useful. PPs give us information of time, space, manner, etc. In other words (<— noun-modifying PP!) they establish relationships between objects, ideas, people, etc.

So, for example, a cat can run a lot of places. Up at tree. Down the street. In the house. Off a cliff. On/over my foot. Through the door. Before lunch. After breakfast. Because of the dog.

In fact, many students are taught in grammar school that prepositions are the things that a fly can do to a sugar bowl or a squirrel to a tree. (A fly lands on the sugar bowl. A squirrel dashes across a branch.)

Recently, “because” has replaced “because of” as a preposition. As a fan of language change, I actually hope this catches on and sticks around in the language. I’d love for “because” to function as a preposition in one word. “Because” has multiple functions, of course. It can be a preposition. It can also be a subordinating conjunction, which we’ll be looking at in the coming weeks.

This new use of “because” has its own contextual meaning, too. It means “for this reason,” but it also suggests that the reasons are many, and are well known, so “because [blank]” is a shortened, almost dismissive, description.

Some examples:

  1. Oh my gosh! Did you see those shoes? I have to have them! Because, sparkles!!!
  2. So, yeah, this guy took an up-skirt photo of this lady at X con, and they didn’t do anything about it. Because patriarchy!
  3. I was all stuffed up and could barely breath, because spring in Fayetteville, and so I couldn’t make the meaning.

See how each presumes that the listener already understands the connection between the event and the modifying “because” phrase? In sentence 1, the listener presumably knows that the speaker LOVES sparkly stuff. In sentence 2, the entire issue of safe space for women at conventions is shortened into “because patriarchy” and the listener is presumed to know of that discussion. Finally, sentence 3 suggests that the listener is personally familiar with the yellow pollen fest that is a Fayetteville, NC spring.

In all the cases, one need not agree with the “because” phrase, but the listener must at least be familiar. This grammatical usage suggest that the speaker views the leader as “in the know.” The “because [noun]” is not only a way of shortening the phrase by omitting the “of,” but it is also a way of community building or shorthand. “I know I can say “because turnips!!” to you and you’ll understand the full conversation behind the turnips without me having to explain it.”

[Disclaimer: the “because [noun phrase]” form is still very much slang. Don’t use it in formal writing. But it could be used in a first-person story, perhaps, or, especially, dialogue.]

So, when you need to modify a verb, especially to give spatial or temporal information, consider using a prepositional phrase!

See you in two weeks, at this time, in the place, for more verb modifiers. Because GRAMMAR!

[1] Martha Kolln and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 9th edition. New York: Pearson, 2012


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