How to Identify Prepositional Phrases

Steinbeck's Evocative Writing in 'Grapes of Wrath' Is Great Example

flooded fields
(Jullia Alexander/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Prepositional phrases are a central part of virtually every sentence spoken or written. Simply put, they always consist of a preposition and an object or objects of the preposition. So it's good to get acquainted with this essential part of a sentence and how it affects your writing style.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 29 of John Steinbeck's famous novel "The Grapes of Wrath," published in 1939.

As you read this paragraph, see if you can identify all the prepositional phrases used by Steinbeck to convey the dramatic return of rain after a long, painful drought. When you're finished, compare your results with the second version of the paragraph, in which prepositional phrases are highlighted in italics.

Steinbeck's Original Paragraph in 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Over the high coast mountains and over the valleys the gray clouds marched in from the ocean. The wind blew fiercely and silently, high in the air, and it swished in the brush, and it roared in the forests. The clouds came in brokenly, in puffs, in folds, in gray crags; and they piled in together and settled low over the west. And then the wind stopped and left the clouds deep and solid. The rain began with gusty showers, pauses and downpours; and then gradually it settled to a single tempo, small drops and a steady beat, rain that was gray to see through, rain that cut midday light to evening. And at first the dry earth sucked the moisture down and blackened. For two days the earth drank the rain, until the earth was full. Then puddles formed, and in the low places little lakes formed in the fields. The muddy lakes rose higher, and the steady rain whipped the shining water. At last the mountains were full, and the hillsides spilled into the streams, built them to freshets, and sent them roaring down the canyons into the valleys. The rain beat on steadily. And the streams and the little rivers edged up to the bank sides and worked at willows and tree roots, bent the willows deep in the current, cut out the roots of cotton-woods and brought down the trees. The muddy water whirled along the bank sides and crept up the banks until at last it spilled over, into the fields, into the orchards, into the cotton patches where the black stems stood. Level fields became lakes, broad and gray, and the rain whipped up the surfaces. Then the water poured over the highways, and cars moved slowly, cutting the water ahead, and leaving a boiling muddy wake behind. The earth whispered under the beat of the rain, and the streams thundered under the churning freshets.

When you have completed the identification exercise in the original paragraph, compare your results with this marked version.

Steinbeck's Paragraph With Prepositional Phrases in Bold

Over the high coast mountains and over the valleys the gray clouds marched in from the ocean. The wind blew fiercely and silently, high in the air, and it swished in the brush, and it roared in the forests. The clouds came in brokenly, ​in puffs, in folds, in gray crags; and they piled in together and settled low over the west. And then the wind stopped and left the clouds deep and solid. The rain began with gusty showers, pauses and downpours; and then gradually it settled t​o a single tempo, small drops and a steady beat, rain that was gray to see through, rain that cut midday light to evening. And at first the dry earth sucked the moisture down and blackened. For two days the earth drank the rain, until the earth was full. Then puddles formed, and in the low places little lakes formed in the fields. The muddy lakes rose higher, and the steady rain whipped the shining water. At last the mountains were full, and the hillsides spilled into the streams, built them to freshlets, and sent them roaring down the canyons into the valleys. The rain beat on steadily. And the streams and the little rivers edged up to the bank sides and worked at willows and tree roots, bent the willows deep in the current, cut out the roots of cotton-woods and brought down the trees. The muddy water whirled along the bank sides and crept ​up the banks until at last it spilled over, ​into the fieldsinto the orchards, into the cotton patches where the black stems stood. Level fields became lakes, broad and gray, and the rain whipped up the surfaces. Then the water poured over the highways, and cars moved slowly, cutting the water ahead, and leaving a boiling muddy wake behind. The earth whispered under the beat of the rain, and the streams thundered under the churning freshlets.

Common Prepositions

aboutbehindexceptoutside
abovebelowforover
acrossbeneathfrompast
afterbesideinthrough
againstbetweeninsideto
alongbeyondintounder
amongbynearuntil
arounddespiteofup
atdownoffwith
beforeduringonwithout