Definition and Examples of Prepositional Adverbs

Prepositional Adverb


In English grammar, a prepositional adverb is an adverb that can also function as a preposition. Unlike an ordinary preposition, a prepositional adverb is not followed by an object.

An adverb is a word used to describe or modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs can help describe how an action is performed (carefully, happily, quickly), when an action takes place (before, after, daily, weekly), or where an action takes place (here, there, inside, outside). A preposition, meanwhile, is a word used to show direction, location, or time (on, at, over, near). It is a word that introduces a prepositional phrase, which usually ends with an object. Prepositional phrases include expressions such as "on the ground," "by the store," and "near the wall."

English words that can function as prepositional adverbs include the following: about, above, across, after, along, around, before, behind, below, between, beyond, by, down, in, inside, near, on, opposite, out, outside, over, past, round, since, through, throughout, under, up, within, and without.

Phrasal Verbs

Prepositional adverbs (also called adverbial particles) are also used to form phrasal verbs. These are idiomatic expressions, usually consisting of a verb and an adverb or a verb and a preposition, that form a single semantic unit. Examples include phrases such as "see to," "pulled up," "call on," "give in," and "hold back." Phrasal verbs are also known as compound verbs or multiword verbs. What makes them unique is the fact that their meaning is not the sum of their parts, as Grover Hudson points out in "Essential Introductory Linguistics." Hudson offers the example of "throw[ing] up," an action that "doesn't involve either throwing or a direction up." Another good example is "call off," meaning to cancel. The meaning of the verb "call" is transformed by the addition of the prepositional adverb "off," creating an entirely new meaning.

A single verb can be made into several different phrasal verbs, each with their own distinct meaning, by adding different prepositions. For example, the verb "come" can be turned into "come up (with)" (to think of an idea), "come in" (to enter), "come across" (to find), or "come forward" (to offer information). 


One way to spot prepositional adverbs is to look for prepositions that do not have corresponding objects. In many cases, these words are serving as adverbs:

  • "We were playing records, Mama, listening to the radio, just hanging around. Mama, just hanging around."
    (Annie Lou in "Waiting for MacArthur," a play by P. Paullette MacDougal. Dramatic Publishing, 2003)
  • "Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
    A pocket full of posies;
    Hush! hush! hush! hush!
    We’re all tumbled down."
    (Kate Greenaway's "Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes," 1881)
  • "'He called her up,' she said oracularly, 'he called her up, and asked her to keep you at the telephone, so he could talk to Miss Louise. A thankless child is sharper than a serpent's tooth.'"
    (Mary Roberts Rinehart, "The Circular Staircase," 1908)
  • After he finished wiping his shoes, he stepped inside.
  • In the last quarter of the game, their fans cheered them on.
  • In the middle of the investigation, an informant came forward with valuable information.
  • As they passed by, they saw all kinds of amazing sights through the window of the train.

In each of these examples, the adverb (around, down, up, inside, etc.) is a word that can also serve as a preposition. In each case, though, the word is not used to form a prepositional phrase. In other words, each preposition (which functions as an adverb) appears without an object, making it a prepositional adverb.

"Pure" Prepositions vs. Prepositional Adverbs

In "The Elements of English Grammar," George Philip Krapp writes that "[t]he difference between the pure preposition and the prepositional adverb is illustrated by the following two sentences:

He ran up the stairs.
He ran up a bill.

In the first sentence, "stairs" is the object of "up." The expression "up the stairs" is a prepositional phrase modifying the verb "ran." In the second sentence, however, "bill" is not the object of "up," and "up a bill" is a not a prepositional phrase modifying the verb "ran." Rather, the word "up" is acting as a prepositional adverb modifying the verb "ran." Together, the two words form the phrasal verb "ran up," an expression whose distinct meaning has nothing to do with the act of running.