Prepositional Phrases

Many criminal justice writers are wary when they hear the term “prepositional phrase.” It’s got to be hard, right? After all, “prepositional” is a five-syllable mouthful of a word.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Many writers make mistakes when they write a sentence containing a prepositional phrase.

The good news? There’s an easy rule that will keep you out of trouble. And here’s even better news: there’s also an easier rule that works maybe 99.5% of the time.

Let’s get started.

Prepositions are small, everyday words that indicate direction or purpose. The English language has dozens of them. For now, let’s stick to six: in by for with to of. These are the most common prepositions, and you don’t have to memorize any others. (Surely you can memorize six little words, right? in by for with to of)

Prepositions are rarely used by themselves. You wouldn’t say “I went skiing with.” Expressions like “with Mary,” “to the store,” “for a wedding gift, “by myself” and so on are prepositional phrases.

There are a couple of general rules of thumb for writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase that work really well. Take your pick! Either one will help you get your sentences right.

  • When you’re doing the grammar of a sentence, skip the prepositional phrase.
  • Go to the beginning of the sentence.

Maybe once or twice a year you’ll come across a sentence that works differently. That means most of the time you can use one of these rules, and you’ll be fine. (If you’re curious about the exception, click here and read Rule 6.)

Let’s try a couple of examples.

The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.

What will you be emptying and moving? The glass doors or the bookcase?

The obvious answer is the bookcase! (You can either go to the beginning of the sentence (bookcase) or cross out “with the glass doors.”)

So here’s your sentence:

The bookcase with the glass shelves needs to be emptied and moved. CORRECT

Another one:

Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.

What caused the problems – department policies or misunderstanding?

The obvious answer is misunderstanding! Again, you can either go to the beginning of the sentence (misunderstanding) or cross out the prepositional phrase “of departmental policies.”

So here’s your sentence:

Misunderstanding of department policies has caused many problems recently. CORRECT

To learn more about writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase, click here and read Rule 4.

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One more thought: There’s a reason why writers often have difficulty with prepositional phrases. Most people aren’t used to thinking about parts of sentences. It’s not a normal activity. (When was the last time you found yourself thinking, “Hey! That was a prepositional phrase!’?)

You’re learning a new skill. Be patient with yourself, and keep reviewing and practicing. After a while it will become second nature. That’s a promise!

Dictionary definition of a preposition



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