When a Preposition Is an Adverb

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Yesterday I posted an article on the pros and cons of memorizing prepositions (I lean toward con myself). A commenter asked for clarification when I mentioned that sometimes what look like prepositions are actually adverbs. So, I thought I’d provide a refresher on what exactly a preposition is and how you can tell one from a thinly disguised adverb.

The Mysterious Preposition

I understand confusion about prepositions. They are strange words. Useful to be sure, but hard to pin down. You can’t define them in the normal way. Try it for yourself: What’s the definition of with, of, from, on? Prepositions show relationship. They show how a noun or pronoun is related to another word or word group in a sentence. That’s an abstract explanation, I know, so let me try to show you what I mean.

  • Gabby stuck her gum under the table.
  • The project is due before Tuesday.
  • Juneau is the capital of Alaska.

Each of these simple sentences includes a preposition, which I have conveniently underlined for you. Each of them show how a noun is related to something else in the sentence. Under shows how the gum is related to the table in space. The relationship indicated is spatial. Most prepositions are like this — showing location in space.

In the second sentence, before shows when the project is due in relation to Tuesday. The relationship here is chronological — time-oriented.

The last one is the trickiest. Fortunately, the vast majority of prepositions are like the first two — showing spatial or chronological relationship. Of is the oddball, but it is a very common word. In fact of is second only to the in the list of most used words in English! Of is always a preposition and shows a sort of basic relationship that isn’t necessarily related to time or space. If something is of something, it is simply related to it in some way that makes sense to the reader.

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Prepositional Phrases

You can’t understand prepositions without understanding prepositional phrases because prepositions always form a prepositional phrase. Always. That’s important.

A prepositional phrase includes the preposition, its object, and any modifiers related to the object. If you ask “what?” after the preposition, you’ll find its object. For example, in our sample sentences above, ask under what? (the table) before what? (Tuesday) and of what? (Alaska). Table, Tuesday, and Alaska are the objects of their respective prepositions. The prepositional phrases, therefore, are everything from the preposition to its object:

  • Gabby stuck her gum under the table.
  • The project is due before Tuesday.
  • Juneau is the capital of Alaska.
When Adverbs Look Like Prepositions

Now that you’ve got prepositions down, I can explain how it’s easy to confuse them with adverbs. Many words can serve in either of these roles in a sentence. Here’s the easy way to tell which is which:

If it has an object, it’s a preposition, if it doesn’t, it’s an adverb.

Simple as that. If you are one of those people who have memorized the prepositions and you spot one in a sentence, before you mark it down as a preposition, make sure it has an object (ask preposition what?). For example:

  • Billy ran up the stairs.
  • Billy looked up and saw the alien spacecraft.

Both sentences include the word up. We know up is often a preposition, but let’s check. Does it have an object? In the first sentence it does: stairs. Up what? Up the stairs.

H0w about the second sentence? Up what? Well, um, hmm. There’s no answer because there’s no object. Up in this example is being used as an adverb to modify the verb looked. It shows how or where Billy looked.

Think you’ve got it? Click the link below and take the quiz I’ve created to see if you can tell when a common preposition is being used as an adverb. It’s free!

Quiz Link *****

Leave us a comment!

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. leandrea
    leandrea10-13-2014

    can i say
    the girl looked over the road—- preposition
    n
    she ran over ——adverb

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-14-2014

      I’m not sure I understand your question, Leandrea, but I think you are correct. Over in “over the road” is a preposition, and over in “She ran over” is a adverb.

      • leandrea
        leandrea10-15-2014

        thanks so much for the info

  2. Anu Kalra
    Anu Kalra08-12-2014

    Your explanations are very easy to understand.Thanks a lot.I am surely going to recommend your blog to my middle school students.

  3. S. Senovich
    S. Senovich05-29-2014

    Hi Brian. I am hoping you will be able to help me identify the part of speech “walk” is in the following sentence; We watched the students walk by.

    Thank you, in advance, for your help!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko05-30-2014

      Sure. It’s a verb.

      If you are interested, I can explain further. The simple subject of the sentence is we and the simple predicate (main verb) is watched. That part’s easy.

      The clause “the students walk by” is what we call a noun clause — a whole clause that functions together like a noun. It is what the we in the sentence watched. The clause functions identically to the word movie in the sentence We watched the movie. In other words, the clause “the students walk by” is the direct object of the verb watched.

      Now, clauses are word groups that have their own internal grammar too — they have a subject and predicate for example. In this noun clause, students is the subject and walk is the predicate (verb). By is an adverb here, modifying walk and showing how or where the walking happens.

      Does that help?

  4. guilherme
    guilherme09-27-2013

    Hi Brian,

    I’m Brazilian and have been teaching English for a while. I was wondering if you could give me a hand on two topics:

    1) what’s the difference between idioms and frasal verbs?
    2) what’s the difference between prepositional frasal verbs and adverbial phrasl verbs?

    I look forward to getting your hints
    Best Regards
    Guilherme

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-27-2013

      Hi Guilherme,

      Glad to help. Let me get to your questions.

      1) Phrasal verbs are a type of idiom. Not all idioms are phrasal verbs, but all phrasal verbs (as far as I know) are idioms. An idiom is simply a “way of saying” something in a given language that doesn’t translate well literally. A phrasal verb is a verb composed of a verb and a particle (a preposition that isn’t acting like a preposition or adverb). So, “give up” doesn’t mean to “give something” in an “up” direction. It means something else entirely (to surrender or stop trying). That’s what makes it an idiom.

      2) I’m not familiar with the terms “prepositional phrasal verbs” or “adverbial phrasal verbs.”

      A word like “up” can be used as a preposition (The man climbed up the ladder.) Or it can be used as an adverb (Throw the ball up.) Or it can be a particle in a phrasal verb (I need to look up “particle” in the dictionary).

      I hope that helps. Maybe you could clarify what you mean by your second question. Perhaps I misunderstood it.

      • guilherme
        guilherme09-27-2013

        Hi Brian,

        To start off with, I want to say thanks a lot for your promptness to answer my questions. I really appreciate it. I guess I made you misunderstand my second question. I am sorry because it was my fault,.. What I meant was the following: I really don’t understand the difference between a prepositional verb and a phrasal verb. How about Adverbial phrases? How does it sound to you now? Probably, that’s the terminology I should have used before. As for my first question, It was really easy to understand your explanation.One more time thanks a lot for your kind help.

        Regards from Brazil
        Guilherme

        • Brian Wasko
          Brian Wasko09-29-2013

          Hi again, Guilherme,

          I am not familiar with the term “prepositional verb.” Read the article I linked to below–it may help you understand how a word that is normally a preposition can be combined with a verb to form a phrasal verb. Maybe that will answer your question.

          I can help you with adverbial phrases though. :) A phrase is a group of words that works together like a single part of speech. When that group of words functions like an adverb, it is called an adverbial phrase.

          For example. In the sentence, “Tom walks quickly” the adverb “quickly” modifies the verb “walks,” showing how Tom walks.

          You can use a phrase the same way: “Tom walks down the street.” In this sentence, “down the street” modifies “walks” the same way “quickly” did in the previous sentence. It shows how (or where) Tom walks.

          You might recognize “down the street” as a prepositional phrase. It’s that too. Any phrase that starts with a preposition (like “down”) and ends with the object of the preposition (like “street”) is known as a prepositional phrase. But all prepositional phrases ALSO function like adjectives or adverbs, so they are also either adjective phrases or adverb phrases.

          How’s that?

          • guilherme
            guilherme10-01-2013

            That’s awesome Brian !!

            One more time thanks a bunch for your help.

            Regards

            Guilherme

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-27-2013

      Here’s an article I wrote recently that may help:

      http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2013/09/what-is-a-phrasal-verb/

  5. lizzy
    lizzy08-12-2013

    nice article, REALLY helped me out a lot:) but could you help me with this sentence? ‘Run to the store across the street and pick up and gallon of milk, please ‘
    what is ‘up’ ?

    • lizzy
      lizzy08-12-2013

      *correction- pick up A gallon of milk

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-12-2013

      Sure, Lizzy. You’ve identified a topic I’m hoping to address soon on the blog–something called a phrasal verb.

      Some verbs in English are actually a combination of a verb and a particle (a word that doesn’t fit into normal part of speech categories). These particles typically resemble prepositions. These two words need each other to form the verb.

      Notice the difference in how the words “look up” are used in these two sentences:

      “Look up and see the sky.”
      “Look up “particle” in the dictionary.”

      In the first one, “up” is an adverb modifying the verb “look” (showing how to look). In the second, “look up” is a different verb altogether. The two words work together to create a particular meaning. This latter use is an example of a phrasal verb.

      “Pick up” in your sentence is an example of a phrasal verb. It’s not just “picking” something in the “up” direction :) , “pick up” means something different. So, in this case, “up” is part of the phrasal verb “pick up.” Make sense?

      Other common phrasal verbs: give up, come over, blow up, call off, point out, turn down.

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko08-12-2013

        I just realized you used a phrasal verb in your original question: help out. :)

        • Lizzy
          Lizzy08-13-2013

          Wow, that makes a lot of sense now :D
          Oh yeah, I did! Thank you so much!

  6. Benedict Tiu
    Benedict Tiu08-12-2013

    Nice explanation. But I have this sentence that really confuses me..
    His new car drove over that large box in the street yesterday. What is “over”?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-12-2013

      Hi Benedict. “Over” is a preposition in your sentence. If you ask “over what?” The answer is “that large box.” So you have a prepositional phrase: “over that large box.” FYI, that phrase is also adverbial–it shows how/where the car drove.

      Make sense?

  7. venkata reddy.v
    venkata reddy.v06-18-2013

    i am really thankful to you(Brian Wasko) for your clear explanation on confusion between preposition and adverb(only in certain words like up,outside…..)

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-18-2013

      Well, I’m glad you found this post helpful, Venkata. Thanks for taking the time to leave a nice comment. :)

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