Broadly speaking, prepositional idioms refer to the idiomatic use of prepositions after verbs, adjectives, verbal-nouns, etc, and with idiomatic phrases introduced by a preposition. Three striking differences exist between the idiomatic (prepositional idioms) and the unidiomatic uses of prepositions. The first is that while prepositional idioms have specific and clearly defined meanings (e.g. on hire, on fire, on duty, on pension, etc), unidiomatic prepositions have no very clearly defined meanings apart from the phrases or constructions in which they occur (e.g. sit on the bench and keep your pencil on the table or sit at the table). The second difference is that prepositional idioms are not always logical (e.g. averse to; “averse “: turn away from). But prepositions used unidiomatically are more logical than those used otherwise (e.g. the unidiomatic expression in the circumstances appears more logical than its idiomatic equivalent under the circumstance, which literally means things that stand around one). The third difference is that where two or more prepositions are idiomatic, there may not be much difference between their usage (e.g. aim at, aim for, immune to, immune from) but where two or more prepositions are used unidiomatically, one or the other preposition may portray different shades of meaning (e.g. under has about nine distinct shades of meaning: beneath, at the foot of, subject to control/authority, less than, by the authority of, in process of, etc).

Most prepositional idioms emerge when certain prepositions are preceded by certain nouns, verbs, and adjectives” Consider the following examples:


Prepositions after nouns


Prepositions after verbs


Prepositions after adjectives


Other Prepositional Idioms

Generally, all prepositional phrases, all idiomatic phrases introduced by prepositions, and all idioms that contain prepositions are commonly referred to as prepositional idioms. Below are some striking examples and their meanings:

  • at a stretch – continuously.
  • at the back of – behind.
  • at one’s own risk – on one’s own responsibility.
  • at sixes and sevens – in a state of confusion.
  • behind time – late.
  • behind the times – outdated.
  • by the skin of one’s teeth – narrowly; by a narrow margin.
  • come across – find unexpectedly.
  • for that matter – so far as that is concerned.
  • fit out with – equip or provide with.
  • grounded in – having a basic foundation/training in something.
  • grounded on – based on.
  • grow out of – out grow; get too big for.
  • go on the streets – turn prostitute.
  • in front of – before.
  • in point of fact – as a matter of fact.
  • in lieu of – in place of.
  • in the result – as things turned out, or resulted.
  • in one’s stride – without any special effort.
  • in due course – when the due time has not elapsed; at the right time.
  • in good faith – with honest intention.
  • in transit – in the course of being conveyed from place to place.
  • in want – in extreme need.
  • wanting in – lacking/deficient.
  • keep faith with – remain true to.
  • on the strength of – on account of; in reliance on.
  • on strike – striking; carrying out a strike.
  • on the back of – on the reverse side of.
  • on the grounds of – because; for reasons of.
  • once and for all” – once and only once; finally (now and for the last time).
  • once in a way/once in a while – occasionally.
  • off the point/beside the point – irrelevant to the subject.
  • pay through the nose – pay an exorbitant price.
  • shoulder to shoulder – side by side.
  • sit on the fence – refuse to commit oneself.
  • the man in the street – the ordinary man:
  • to marry beneath one – to marry one’s social inferior.
  • under the command of – commanded by.
  • under colour of – on the pretext of.
  • under the nose – in secret; confidentially (openly but scarcely noticed)

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