Prepositional Phrases and Their Objects
Prepositions never travel alone; they’re always with an object. Just to get all the annoying terminology over with at once, a prepositional phrase consists of a preposition and an object. The object of a preposition is always a noun or a pronoun, or perhaps one or two of each. (A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun, such as him for Raymond, it for hotel, and so forth.)
Here’s an example:
In the afternoon the snow pelted Raymond on his little bald head.
This sentence has two prepositions: in and on. Afternoon is the object of the preposition in, and head is the object of the preposition on.
Why, you may ask, is the object head and not little or bald? Sigh. You can throw a few other things inside a prepositional phrase — mainly descriptive words. Check out these variations on the plain phrase of the elephant:
of the apologetic elephant
of the always annoying elephant
of the antagonizingly argumentative elephant
Despite the different descriptions, each phrase is still basically talking about an elephant. Also, elephant is a noun, and only nouns and pronouns are allowed to be objects of the preposition. So in the Raymond sentence, you need to choose the most important word as the object of the preposition. Also, you need to choose a noun, not an adjective. Examine his little bald head (the words, not Raymond’s actual head, which is better seen from a distance). Head is clearly the important concept, and head is a noun. Thus head is the object of the preposition.
Sometimes a preposition may have more than one object, as in this sentence:
Little Jane bounced the rubber ball in the hallway and bedroom.
In this sentence, hallway and bedroom are objects of the preposition in. You can think of this sentence as an abbreviated form of
Little Jane bounced the rubber ball in the hallway and in the bedroom.
When you attach two or more objects to one preposition, you must be sure that both objects pair well with the preposition. Take a look at this sentence:
Little Jane bounced the rubber ball in the street and the wall.
If you expand this sentence, you get
Little Jane bounced the rubber ball in the street and in the wall.
But how can you bounce a ball in the wall? Unless you’re talking about a half-built house, you bounce a ball on or against the wall, not in the wall. The moral of the story is that a preposition with more than one object must make sense with each object separately. If it doesn’t, write two separate prepositional phrases.
Also be careful when you’re choosing a pronoun as the object of a preposition. The pronouns cleared to act as objects of the preposition, are me, you, him, her, it, us, them, whom, and whomever. Stay away from I, we, she, he, they, who, and whoever. Those pronouns are for subjects and subject complements.
Pop the question: Questions that identify the objects of the prepositions
All objects — of a verb or of a preposition — answer the questions whom? or what? To find the object of a preposition, ask whom? or what? after the preposition.
Marilyn thought that the selection of the elephant for the show was unfair.
In this sentence, you see two prepositional phrases. The first preposition is of. Of what? Of the elephant. Elephant is the object of the preposition of. The second preposition is for. For what? For the show. Show is the object of the preposition to.
What is the object of the preposition in this sentence?
The heroic teacher pounded the grammar rules into her students’ tired brains.
Answer: Brains is the object of the preposition into. When you pop the question — into whom? or into what? — the answer is her students’ tired brains. The most important word is brains, which is a noun.
Why pay attention to prepositions?
When you’re checking subject–verb pairs, you need to identify and then ignore the prepositional phrases. The prepositional phrases are distractions. If you don’t ignore them, you may end up matching the verb to the wrong word. You may also find it helpful to recognize prepositional phrases because sometimes, when you “pop the question” to find an adjective or an adverb, the answer is a prepositional phrase. Don’t panic. You haven’t done anything wrong. Simply know that a prepositional phrase may do the same job as a single-word adjective or adverb.
You should also pay attention to prepositions because choosing the wrong one may be embarrassing:
Person 1: May I sit next to you?
Person 2: (smiling) Certainly.
Person 1: May I sit under you?
Person 2: (sound of slap) Help! Police!
The task of selecting the proper preposition is often difficult because common expressions differ, depending upon the country or even area of a country in which the language is spoken. In New York City, for example, polite people wait on line (if they’re impolite, they push through the crowd). In other parts of the United States, people wait in line. Also, sometimes more than one preposition is acceptable. You can browse over or browse through a magazine, reading bits here and there and deciding what you’d like to investigate thoroughly. Both prepositions, over and through, are correct.
Omitting a preposition can also change meaning. Can you see the difference between these two sentences?
Shirley swam the ocean.
Shirley swam in the ocean.
In the first example sentence, Shirley swam across the entire ocean — from, say, California to Japan or New York to Ireland. The second example sentence expresses a more likely meaning, that Shirley went to the beach and swam for a while in ocean water.
A few questions on standardized exams, including the SAT Writing and the ACT English tortures — sorry, I mean test sections — revolve around prepositions. You may encounter a misused preposition (to instead of with, for example) or a situation in which a preposition tries to do the job of another part of speech (like instead of as, for example). The best preparation for preposition questions is general reading of good-quality writing. Language seeps into your brain when you read, and some of it stays there. If you’re spending time with proper English, the correct use of prepositions simply sounds right. The reverse is also true. To dedicated readers, preposition errors stand out like ukuleles in an opera.