Prepositional Idioms? Calm down!

A prepositional idiom consists of a verb followed by a preposition, but unlike an ordinary prepositional phrase, it forms an expression with a nonliteral or idiomatic meaning. Some grammarians consider the prepositional idiom a type of a phrasal verb, others call it the phrasal verb itself, and still others call it a verb phrase. Anyway we call it, however, the distinguishing characteristic of a prepositional idiom is that its meaning is largely determined by the preposition that comes after the verb; in fact, a single verb can yield as many as five or many more meanings depending on the preposition that comes after it.

For example, the verb “back,” which literally means “to support by material or moral assistance” or “to cause to go back or in reverse,” yields at least nine different meanings when followed by different prepositions, as follows:

back down – cease defending one’s position in a debate or argument.
Example: He’s not the type who’ll back down from a fight because of veiled threats.

back away – get out from a previous commitment.
Example: The consortium partner backed away from the deal for undisclosed reasons.

back out – renege from a promise or deal.
Example: The boxer backed out from the title fight due to disagreements over the prize money.

back up (1) – provide support to someone or something.
Example:  The reporter was asked to back up his exposé with documentary evidence.

back up (2) – move backwards or in reverse.
Example: She backed up the car so fast that it hit the lamppost.

back out of – not keep a promise or deal.
Example:  His lawyer backed out of the case the day before the trial.

back into – hit something while moving backwards.
Example: She backed into a lamppost while getting out of the parking slot.

back off – escape or run away from something.
Example: The police told the demonstrators to back off or face dispersal.

back of – unspoken self-knowledge about the outcome of something
Example: He decided to fight, but back of his mind he knew that it was a losing battle.

The SAT Reasoning Test is a standardized test for college admissions in the United States. The SAT is owned, published, and developed by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization in the United States. It was formerly developed, published, and scored by the Educational Testing Service which still administers the exam. The test is intended to assess a student’s readiness for college. It was first introduced in 1926, and its name and scoring have changed several times. It was first called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, but now SAT does not stand for anything.

The current SAT Reasoning Test, introduced in 2005, takes three hours and forty-five minutes to finish, and costs $49 ($75 International), excluding late fees. Possible scores range from 600 to 2400, combining test results from three 800-point sections (Mathematics, Critical Reading, and Writing).

Idioms that start with in

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition in:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
in advance ahead of time; before “Sue paid for her gift in advance.”
in brief concisely; in a few words “This textbook explains World War II in brief.”
in bulk in large amounts “We always buy toilet paper in bulk.”
in common sharing a trait with someone or something else “Dogs and wolves have several traits in common.”
in danger prone to danger or threatened by a dangerous situation; about to be harmed “Those little kids are in danger.”
in debt owing money “Many students are in debt due to the expense of higher education.”
in demand desired; wanted; sought after (usually skills or products) “Computer skills are really in demand these days.”
in depth thoroughly; comprehensively “Students must discuss their proposals in depth with their advisers.”
in detail thoroughly; comprehensively “Writers describe everything in detail.”
in the end finally; at last In the end, what matters most is honesty.”
in fact really; actually “The man who is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans is in fact the CEO.”
in general usually; most of the time In general, owners should feed their pets at least twice a day.”
in a minute very soon “Angela will arrive in a minute.”
in particular especially “I love history in general, but I would like to learn more about European history in particular.”
in reality really; actually “Oftentimes, the most talkative people are in reality quite shy.”

Idioms that start with on

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition on:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
on average usually; typically; normally “Bruce works out on average four times a week.”
on board located on a ship, train, or airplane “The ship will depart once everyone is on board.”
on demand immediately available when asked for or requested “Most people prefer to watch movies on demand.”
on display being shown, showcased, or exhibited “A famous painting is now on display at the museum.”
on fire in flames; burning “A building was on fire yesterday.”
on hand available, accessible “Do you have a notepad on hand?”
on the other hand in contrast (to a previously stated point of view) “It’s fun to see movies, but on the other hand tickets can be quite expensive.”
on purpose intentionally; deliberately “Liz left without us on purpose.”
on sale being sold, especially at a reduced price “The hat you wanted is on sale at the mall.”
on schedule functioning as planned or scheduled “The buses seem to be on schedule today.”
on time at the planned or expected time (e.g., of arrival) “Alfred never arrives on time.”

Idioms that start with out of

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition out of:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
out of the blue without prior indication; unexpectedly “He showed up at our house out of the blue.”
out of breath tired; exhausted; panting “She became out of breath after trudging up the stairs.”
out of character contrary to one’s personality “Teresa has been acting out of character lately.”
out of harm’s way safe “I’m just glad the baby is out of harm’s way.”
out of order not functioning or working properly; temporarily broken or unusable (usually referring to machinery) “This printer is out of order.”
out of the ordinary unusual; not normal “His methods are out of the ordinary.”
out of print no longer published or printed (usually referring to books) “Unfortunately, that book is out of print.”
out of the question impossible or unlikely; unreasonable “Your request is out of the question.”
out of season not ripe or readily available (usually fruits or vegetables) “Grapes are out of season this time of year.”
out of style not fashionable or hip “Perms have been out of style for decades.”
out of time having no more (remaining) time “We are almost out of time.”
out of town temporarily away at a location in a different vicinity “Brian will be out of town this weekend.”
out of work unemployed “Most of my friends are unfortunately out of work.”

Idioms that start with at

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition at:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
at all times always “Wear your seatbelt at all times.”
at fault responsible for something bad; culpable “She is the only one at fault.”
at first in the beginning; initially At first, she attempted to speak to everyone individually.”
at hand near in space or time “Always keep your passwords close at hand.”
at last finally “He made it to the airport at last.”
at once immediately “Go to your room at once!”
at rest motionless “An object at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an outside force.”
at risk prone to danger or threatened by a dangerous situation “Families residing near the volcano are especially at risk.”

Idioms that start with for

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition for:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
for certain surely; definitely; positively “Is Desmond coming to the party tomorrow for certain?”
for example as an example; for instance “English isn’t the only international language; for example, French is the national language of many different countries.”
for fun as a hobby; for enjoyment “What do you usually do for fun?”
for good permanently or for an extended period of time “I’ve decided to leave this city for good.”
for a living as an occupation “Herman cleans houses for a living.”
for now temporarily; for the time being “Please go to the waiting room for now.”
for sale being sold; available to be purchased “Is this diamond ring for sale?”

Idioms that start with by

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition by:

Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
by accident unintentionally; not deliberately “The kids broke the vase by accident.”
by all means definitely; certainly “Prospective students are by all means encouraged to visit the campus.”
by hand without the use of machinery “He makes intricate sculptures by hand.”
by mistake unintentionally; not deliberately; as a mistake “I went to the wrong location by mistake.”
by the way incidentally (used to introduce a different topic) By the way, have you written your essay yet?”

Idioms that start with from

The table below shows various examples of prepositional idioms that start with the preposition from:

Idiom that Starts with From Meaning Example Sentence
from afar from a distance; coming from far away “I could hear music from afar.”
from head to toe all over the body “She was covered in mud from head to toe.”
from scratch from the beginning and using only the basic elements or ingredients “Bob made raspberry cupcakes from scratch.”
from time to time occasionally; infrequently “They return to their home country from time to time.”



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