Prepositions in Idioms  

How are prepositions used to create idioms?

Many prepositions can be used with certain words or phrases to form idioms (expressions with unique meanings that cannot be inferred from their constituent parts alone). These prepositional idioms typically begin or end with a preposition. Prepositional idioms can function adverbially, adjectivally, or verbally and may come at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. For example:
  • Turn down the volume, please.” (verbal idiom at the beginning of a sentence)
  • “She plays tennis on average three times a month.” (adverbial idiom in the middle of a sentence)
  • “All the elevators are out of order.” (adjectival idiom at the end of a sentence)

Types of idioms

Prepositional idioms combine prepositions with verbs, nouns, or phrases to create idiomatic expressions. These expressions can be divided into two categories: idioms that start with prepositions and idioms that end with prepositions.

Idioms that start with prepositions

Idioms that start with prepositions form prepositional phrases, meaning they must be followed by a noun or noun phrase. Idiomatic prepositional phrases are able to function either adverbially or adjectivally. For example:
  • “Chuck visits his grandparents from time to time.” (adverbial prepositional phrase)
  • “The city is in danger.” (adjectival prepositional phrase)
  • “Answer me at once.” (adverbial prepositional phrase)
Certain idiomatic prepositional phrases can behave both adverbially and adjectivally. For example, look at how the prepositional idiom in depth is used below:
  • “He researches rainforests in depth.” (In depth is an adverbial prepositional phrase that modifies the verb researches.)
  • “He conducts in-depth research of rainforests.” (In-depth* is an adjectival prepositional phrase that modifies the noun research.)
(*We usually insert a hyphen when an adjective consists of two or more words and comes directly before the noun it modifies.)

Adding modifiers

Various adverbs and adjectives may be used as modifiers and placed inside idiomatic prepositional phrases for emphasis or clarification. For example:
  • “Small electronics are in demand.”
  • “Small electronics are in high demand.”
  • “The user downloaded a virus by accident.”
  • “The user downloaded a virus by complete accident.”

Idioms that end with prepositions

An idiom that contains a verb and ends with a preposition can be classified as a phrasal verb. Like normal verbs, phrasal verbs describe an action in the sentence; they are written as verb + preposition or verb + particle + preposition. For example:
  • “I turned down the job offer.” (verb + preposition)
  • “He is beginning to get along with his stepfather.” (verb + particle + preposition)
See the section about Phrasal Verbs in the chapter on Verbs to learn more about how these are formed and used.

1. In what part of a sentence can you insert a prepositional idiom?

2. Which of the following characteristics describes the function of an idiomatic prepositional phrase?

3. Which of the following characteristics describes the function of a phrasal verb?

4. What does a prepositional idiom require to be considered an idiomatic prepositional phrase?

5. How does the prepositional idiom function in the following sentence?
“She talked in detail about her trip to New Zealand.”

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