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The Nominal Functions of Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

Prepositions and prepositional phrases perform six nominal functions in the English language. The following article lists the six functions of prepositions and prepositional phrases and provides examples to illustrate use.

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    Prototypical Prepositional Functions

    In English, prepositions and prepositional phrases perform eleven prototypical prepositional functions:

    1. Prepositional phrase head
    2. Noun phrase modifier
    3. Adjective phrase modifier
    4. Verb phrase modifier
    5. Noun phrase complement
    6. Adjective phrase complement
    7. Verb Phrase complement
    8. Particle
    9. Infinitive marker
    10. Adjunct
    11. Adverbial

    However, English prepositions and prepositional phrases can also perform six nominal functions. Nominal functions are grammatical functions prototypically performed by nouns, noun phrases, and noun clauses. The six nominal functions of prepositions and prepositional phrases are:

    1. Subject
    2. Subject complement
    3. Direct object
    4. Object complement
    5. Indirect object
    6. Prepositional complement

    Prepositional phrases of location and time most often perform nominal functions. Also note that, although grammatically possible, prepositional phrases infrequently function as subjects, subject complements, direct objects, object complements, indirect objects, and prepositional complements. The following sections discuss the six nominal functions of prepositions and include examples to illustrate use.

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    Subject

    Prepositional phrases first function as subjects. A subject is a word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of subjects:

    • Behind the shed needs mowing.
    • Before ten is a bad time to call me.
    • Under the refrigerator is disgusting!
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    Subject Complement

    Prepositional phrases secondly function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular verb and describes the subject. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of subject complements:

    • The most magical time of night is after midnight.
    • The new museum display is out of this world.
    • My least favorite part of the workday is during the afternoon.
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    Direct Object

    Prepositional phrases thirdly function as direct objects. A direct object is a word, phrase, or clause that receives the action of a transitive verb. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of direct objects:

    • We must clean under the bed.
    • My mother scrubbed behind the freezer.
    • Dad will decorate on top of the roof.

    Note that prepositional phrases functioning as direct objects can sometimes also be analyzed as adverbials. For example, in the first sentence, We must clean under the bed, the prepositional phrase answers the questions both "what must we clean?" and "where must we clean?" Direct objects answer the question "what?" while adverbials can answer the question "where?" In the case of We must clean under the bed, the prepositional phrase under the bed is either a direct object or an adverbial depending on the particular analysis of the grammarian.

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    Object Complement

    Prepositional phrases fourthly function as object complements. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows and describes the direct object. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of object complements:

    • The tour guides announced the most dangerous place to swim along the southern shore.
    • The reviewer named the most organized classrooms in the English building.
    • I declare my favorite time of the year during the fall.
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    Indirect Object

    Prepositional phrases fifthly function as indirect objects. An indirect object is a word, phrase, or clause that indicates to or for whom or what the action of a ditransitive verb is performed. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of indirect objects:

    • My mom gave behind the freezer a good scrubbing.
    • The decorator is giving inside the closet some serious consideration.
    • My brother should give under his bed some thought.
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    Prepositional Complement

    Prepositional phrases sixthly function as prepositional complements. A prepositional complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a preposition to complete the meaning of a prepositional phrase. The following italicized prepositional phrases are examples of prepositional complements:

    • My siblings always nose around in my bedroom.
    • She mused about under our beds.
    • The secret agent is spying on inside the boardroom.

    Note that prepositional phrases most often function as prepositional complements within prepositional verb constructions. Also note that such prepositional phrases can also be analyzed as adverbials similarly to the situation with direct objects and adverbials.

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    For additional information related to the nominal functions of prepositions and prepositional phrases in English, please refer to:

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    For a printable study sheet of the seventeen functions of prepositions and prepositional phrases in English, please download Grammatical Functions of Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases.

    For a printable sheet of some of the most common prepositions in English, please download List of English Prepositions.


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