How to choose prepositions with an abstract noun

Prepositions

An abstract noun usually names  state or action. Many of them are derived from verbs. Of and by are often used with abstract nouns.

Examples:

She’s reading about the death of Cortéz.

She’s reading about the conquest of the Aztecs.

She’s reading about the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortéz.

Abstract nouns aren’t verbs, but they have meanings like verbs and they can be formed from verbs. Unlike verbs, they aren’t followed by direct objects, but they can be followed by a prepositional phrase. Consider the noun at the beginning of that prepositional phrase. If the noun has a transitive meaning — in other words, it comes from a transitive verb — that noun might refer to the either the subject or object of that verb. If the noun has an intransitive meaning — in other words, it comes from an intransitive verb — that noun can only refer to the subject of that verb. In the examples above,”death” has an intransitive meaning (like “die”), and “conquest” (like “conquer”) has a transitive meaning.

As shown in the examples above, there are three patterns for preposition choice with abstract nouns.

1. Choose of before a noun that would be the subject of an intransitive verb.

2. Choose of before a noun that would be the direct object of a transitive verb.

3. Choose by before a noun that would be the subject of a transitive verb.

For more about abstract nouns, transitive and intransitive verbs, and prepositions, read the background material below or follow one of the links at the end of this post.

What is an abstract noun?

Abstract nouns are usually formed from verbs and retain the meaning of the verb from which they are formed. Examples:

die (v.) ~ death (n.)  conquer (v.) ~ conquest (n.)

When we follow an abstract noun with a prepositional phrase, we want to consider the nature of the associated verb, particularly, whether that verb is transitive or intransitive.

Examples:

Transitive verbs: cause, create, conquer, kill Intransitive verbs: occur, happen, live, stay, die

Remember that transitive verbs can take a direct object, while intransitive verbs cannot.

Examples:

Smoking causes cancer. (The noun cancer is a direct object here.)

Several moths have died inside my porch light. (Inside my porch light is a prepositional phrase, not a noun.)

What is a preposition? A preposition is usually a little word, like in, on, at, or of. Many of them are among the commonest words in the language, and were probably among the first English words you learned. Most phrases that specify time, place, or direction begin with prepositions. Examples:

in the morning

on the shelf

across the street

A preposition is always completed with a noun, noun clause, or gerund (its complement), which usually comes right after the preposition. Examples:

I’m going to the store. We talked about how we might rent an apartment together. Can you please keep that dog from barking?

There are some exceptions to the above rule. A preposition in an infinitival clause, adjective clause (relative clause) or noun clause might not be followed by its complement.

Example Explanation
She is easy to talk to. (to + implied her)
That’s the place I was telling you about. (about + place) = prep + noun
I don’t know what you were thinking of. (of + what = prep + pronoun)

List of prepositions It is not difficult to memorize the complete set of English prepositions. It is a closed set, which means that we don’t keep creating and discovering new ones (as is the case with nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for example). And there are not too many of them. Here is the complete list:

about

above

across

after

against

along

alongside

amid/amidst

among/amongst

around

at

as

before

behind

below

beneath

beside

besides

between/betwixt

beyond

by

down

during

except for

from

in

inside

into

like

near

of

off

on

onto

out

outside

over

past

since

through

throughout

till

to

toward/towards

under

underneath

until

up

upon

upside (slang)

with

within

without

Links:

English Prepositions

Prepositions and Phrasal Verbs