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Grammar 101: Prepositions & Phrases

Grammar 101: Prepositions & Phrases

With examples from The Sting and Heroes.



Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

Ah, prepositions. Where would we be without you? On a boat? In the sky? With an elephant? Through the looking glass? In front of the firing squad?

Prepositions place things in relation to one another. Handy little buggers. But they’re not very informative on their own, so they almost always introduce a prepositional phrase. The preposition tells us the relation, then there’s a noun or pronoun called the object of the preposition that tells us what we're talking about, and often modifiers describing the object.

Hooker sprinted down the cluttered alley.


In the example above, "down the cluttered alley" is a prepositional phrase. We have the preposition "down," the noun "alley" as the object of the preposition, and the modifiers "the" (an article) and "cluttered" (an adjective). Put 'em all together, and you have a prepositional phrase.

So … why? What makes something a phrase?

Phrase: a word or group of words forming a syntactic constituent with a single grammatical function (Merriam-Webster)

Gee, thanks, M-W. I’m a Grammarian and that still made my head hurt. Let’s go a little more general: a phrase is a word or group of words within a sentence that goes together as a single thought. It's like a clause, which momebie described here, but a phrase differs from a clause in that a phrase lacks a subject, a verb, or both.

There are different kinds of phrases, and they are defined by their function in the sentence. In addition to prepositional phrases, we have the verbal phrases (participial, gerund, and infinitive), as well as noun phrases, appositive phrases, and absolute phrases.

Verbals: Participial Phrases, Gerund Phrases, and Infinitive Phrases

We’ll start with verbals, because thanks to traycer_ in our last Grammar 101, you now know all about them. Here’s a quick reminder of what we learned.

Verbals are basically verbs that want to try out other parts of speech. So they slip on a hat, a pair of dark sunglasses and a funny little fake mustache and turn into nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Gerunds are verbal nouns. Participles are verbal adjectives. And infinitives, well, they go crazy and function as nouns, adjectives, or even adverbs.

Okay, take the verb “shuffle”. Here it is, sans mustache, as a regular ol’ verb.

Henry pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Just shuffle the cards, kid.”


In this next example, “shuffle” dons an “-ing” suffix. It’s describing a noun (Hooker), so “Shuffling” is acting as an adjective, which makes it a participle.

Shuffling with a little more snap in the cards than necessary, Hooker bit back his reply. He knew Henry would hear it anyway.


The entire participial phrase is “Shuffling with a little more snap in the cards than necessary”. A phrase can have another phrase or several phrases within it, like those cool Russian dolls. In this example, there are two prepositional phrases within the participial phrase: “with a little more [than necessary] snap” and “in the cards”. Also notice that one of the prepositional phrases was interrupted by the other — phrases are connected by idea, but they can sometimes be physically divided within the sentence.

Shuffling cards came as naturally to Henry Gondorff as breathing. It’s what first got him into the con game.


Here we have that “-ing” suffix dressing up “shuffle” again, but this time “shuffling” is not describing another word. It’s acting as the subject of the verb “came”, like a noun would. That makes it a gerund, and the gerund phrase is “Shuffling cards”.

Fully in character, Luther began to shuffle the deck in a way that somehow made his fingers look arthritically thickened, though Hooker knew for a fact that they weren’t.


In this one, we have the uninflected form of the verb with a “to” in front of it, which, as we know from last week, is an infinitive. The infinitive phrase is “to shuffle the deck”

Noun Phrases

Noun phrases are made up of a noun (makes sense, yes?) and its modifiers, if any. They can function as a subject, object, or complement. They are often part of another phrase.

The gray-haired man swept his finger along the side of his nose.


Let's break that down. “The gray-haired man” is a noun phrase as the subject of the sentence. “[H]is finger” is a noun phrase as the direct object of the verb. And “his nose” is a noun phrase as the object of the preposition. Does that make "his nose" part of the prepositional phrase as well? Why yes, astute reader, it does. Well done!

Appositive Phrases

An appositive is a noun or pronoun, often with modifiers, that renames or identifies another noun or pronoun within a sentence.

Mohinder struggled to follow in the footsteps of his father, a brilliant geneticist.


Whatever you think of the brilliance — or lack thereof — of the Sureshes, “a brilliant geneticist” is an appositive phrase renaming “father”.

Appositive phrases usually come after the noun or pronoun they identify, but they can come before.

A high-school cheerleader, Claire just wanted to have a normal life.


Not everything that follows a noun and tells more about it is an appositive. Appositives are always parenthetical — that is, you can remove them from the sentence and you’ll still have a complete sentence left. Compare the following:

Hiro had always believed that Takezo Kensei was the greatest warrior of all time.


Hiro had always believed that Takezo Kensei, the greatest warrior of all time, would only act in an honorable way.


In the first example, “the greatest warrior of all time” is talking about Kensei, but see the verb “was”? With that there, “the greatest warrior of all time” is necessary to complete the sentence, and that makes the phrase a sentence complement, not an appositive phrase. It provides more information about the noun but does not just identify/rename it. In the second example, the phrase identifies Kensei and can be plucked out without destroying the sentence, so it is an appositive.

Absolute Phrases

Absolute phrases are interesting creatures. Most often, they appear as a group of words containing a noun or pronoun (and any modifiers) followed by a participle. Absolute phrases do not modify a specific word in a sentence; rather, they modify the sentence or independent clause as a whole. They lack only a linking verb to be independent clauses themselves — you can always add a verb to an absolute phrase and end up with a complete sentence.

The destruction of the world averted, Hiro thought he had fulfilled his destiny.


The absolute phrase is “The destruction (noun) of the world averted (participle)”. Even though it immediately precedes the subject, Hiro, it doesn’t modify Hiro; it modifies the independent clause “Hiro thought he had fulfilled his destiny.” If you add a linking verb to the absolute phrase, you get, “The destruction of the world was averted” — a complete sentence.

Absolute phrases do not always contain a participle. The noun can also be followed with an adjective, prepositional phrase, or adverb.

Noah carefully brushed Sandra’s hair from her face, his hands still bloody.


Note, "bloody" is an adjective, and there is no participle in the phrase.

A good writer can use absolute phrases to great effect. There’s a little tension inherent in them: not linked directly to a specific word, not a dangling participle though they often sound like one, not quite an independent clause, they stand out from the rhythm of the sentence and make the reader notice them. Of course, because of this very quality, they should be used judiciously.

Phrases can feel a little intimidating when you first encounter the grammatical terms related to them. (A participial what now?) But really, they're just groups of words. Learning to identify where they begin and end, and what purpose they serve in the sentence, can help you use them to their best advantage.
Tags: !feature, author:mendax, clauses:appositive, grammar101, pos:phrases, pos:prepositions, style choice:grammar, word choice:correct use, writing tips:structure
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