Adverbs, Prepositions and Conjunctions, Oh My!

(Original publication date: July 27, 2010)

If you are going to understand how the human body works, you have to start with basic anatomy and kinesiology (the study of muscles and human movement). Would you go to a doctor who doesn’t know what the kidneys do? Similarly, you can’t learn a language (including your first language) without an understanding of grammar and how language works.

Of course everyone learns their first language and every high school student in the history of high school students (including me, I’m ashamed to say) has said the same thing. “Why do I need to learn grammar? I already know how to speak (insert your first language here).” While it is true that everyone can speak a first language and most people can read and write in that first language, not everyone can do it WELL.

When I began teaching ESL a thousand years ago, in the late-80s, I used to tell my students “Your goal should be to speak as well as native-speakers.” Now, sadly I have to tell them “Your goal should be to speak better than native-speakers.” I am constantly amazed and saddened by how badly native speakers abuse English, especially my fellow Americans. I won’t go into detail about why I think this happened, but basically it started because of one decision. Sometime not long after I graduated from high school in 19**, grammar stopped being taught in most Language Arts classes and when it is taught, it’s taught poorly and the materials are incredibly boring and confusing.

I think it is high time to bring grammar back. In order to understand language, you have to understand grammar. In order to understand grammar, you have to start at the beginning: Parts of Speech. The big four (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) are the same in every language around the world. We all have them and they all work in basically the same way. Of course there are differences, like English and Spanish have singular and plural noun forms while most Asian languages do not. The big stuff, however, is the same. I’ll write about nouns, verbs and adjectives later. Let’s begin with adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions*.

Basically, all three do the same thing. They answer the questions when, where, why and how (which also includes how long, how often, etc.). For example:

  • The children are playing outside. (where)
  • The children are playing in the backyard. (where)
  • Tommy is doing his homework now. (when)
  • Tommy is writing his essay on his computer. (how)
  • Tommy is using his sister’s computer because his has a virus. (why)

The difference between adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions has NOTHING TO DO WITH MEANING. The difference is what comes AFTER the adverb, preposition or conjunction.

An adverb is a single word (or sometimes a pair of words like at last) that is not connected to anything. In the above examples, outside and now are adverbs because they are alone. (But don’t worry. They aren’t lonely. It’s like being single in your mid-20s. You are free to go anywhere and do anything you want.)

A preposition, however, is ALWAYS connected to a noun phrase and only a noun phrase**.

One way to tell the difference between an adverb and a preposition is to take the word out of the sentence and see what happens. For example, try taking in out of these sentences.

  • Suddenly, all the children jumped in.
  • Suddenly, all the children jumped in the pool.

In the first example, even without in, the sentence is understandable. I would like more information, but grammatically it’s ok. In the second example, though, it doesn’t work. How do you jump a pool? Therefore, in the first example, in is an adverb because it’s not connected to anything, but in the second example, in is a preposition because it is connected to the pool.

Finally, conjunctions are followed by entire clauses***. There must be a subject AND a verb. Look at the following examples.

  • The game was cancelled because of the bad weather.
  • The game was cancelled because the weather was so bad.

In the first example, because of is connecting a simple noun phrase to the main clause. In the second example, because is connecting a full clause (subject = weather;/ verb = was). Therefore, because of is a preposition and because is a conjunction.

Another even better way to decide if a word is a preposition or a conjunction is to change the noun directly after the word to a pronoun.

  • I took a shower after my brother.
  • I took a shower after him.
  • I took a shower after my brother finished his shower.
  • I took a shower after he finished his shower.

In the first pair, my brother changes to him, which is an object pronoun. (me, you, him, her, it, us, them). My brother is the object of the preposition. Prepositions are followed by object pronouns.

In the second pair, my brother changes to he, which is a subject pronoun (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) Conjunctions are followed by clauses. Clauses must have subjects. Conjunctions are followed by subject pronouns.

To summarize: If you remember the following, you will almost never mis-identify adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions again.

  • adverb + Ø
  • preposition + noun phrase (or an object pronoun)
  • conjunction + clause (w/ a subject AND a verb)
  • I have never eaten this before.
  • I had never eaten that before my trip to Japan.
  • I had never eaten that before I went to Japan.

In all three of these examples, before has the same meaning. However, in the first, it’s an adverb because it is alone. In the second, it is a preposition because it is followed by a noun phrase and in the third, it is a conjunction because it is followed by the subject pronoun I and the verb went.

I hope this helps. Please ask any and all questions you might have if I haven’t explained this well enough.


*In this case, conjunctions will be limited to subordinating conjunctions like because and will not include coordinating conjunctions like and. I

**Prepositions can also be followed by pronouns, which are substitutes for nouns, and some can be followed by a gerund (verb + ~ing), which is like the noun form of a verb.

***Clauses that begin with subordinating conjunctions are called adverb clauses.

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