Do You Know the Difference Between Articles and Prepositions?

Thursday, January 182 min read

When we come across short words (such as “the,” “an,” “to,” or “for”), we tend to gloss over them without a second thought. However, these tiny terms are used in speech and writing almost constantly, and play a key role in our ability to communicate and be understood. They’re so important, in fact, that they have their own categories within the eight parts of speech: articles and prepositions. These words may be lumped together sometimes due to their similarity in size (and because they’re not easily recognizable as verbs or nouns, for example), but articles and prepositions each serve distinct functions in the English language.

What Is an Article?

Articles are words that tell us whether a noun is specific or general. As such, an article is always paired with a noun. There are two types of articles in English — definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a,” “an”). To understand which one to use, you need to know if you’re referring to a particular item or a general category.

The definite article "the" describes a specific noun already known or previously mentioned. Here are some examples of definite article and noun pairings:

The book was fascinating.

The car is the latest model.

The art museum has an impressive collection.

On the other hand, the indefinite articles "a" and "an" are paired with nonspecific items. Consider these examples:

My friend recommended a book to me.

We bought a car last week.

She wants to visit an art museum on her trip.

While the sentences with the definite article refer to a particular book, car, or art museum, the sentences featuring the indefinite article discuss any book, car, or art museum. They’re not specific. When working with the indefinite article, "a" is used before words beginning with a consonant sound, while "an" is used before words starting with a vowel sound.

What Is a Preposition?

Prepositions serve a different function: They describe the relationship between words. Typically, they show location, time, or direction. Check out these examples:

The keys are under the mat.

We are going to the mall.

He arrived before the party started.

In these sentences, the prepositions indicate the location (“under the mat”), direction (“to the mall”), or time (“before the party”). They can also show manner, space, cause and effect, comparison, and more. Some of the most common prepositions are “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” “of,” “on,” “to,” and “with.”

Typically, prepositions show the relationship between two nouns in a sentence (“The cat was on the mat”), but they can also describe more abstract concepts or comparisons (“He was elected despite facing challenges”).

You might remember grade-school grammar teachers scolding you not to end a sentence with a preposition. That’s a bit outdated — even the writer of one of the most trusted grammar guides, Elements of Style, says it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition if it improves the writing. The ending-preposition rule was based on Latin grammar, not English, so feel free to break that one.  

What’s the Difference?

Articles and prepositions fulfill two very different functions within a sentence. Think of articles as guideposts directing attention to a specific or general concept, while prepositions are bridges connecting various components within a sentence.

Typically, you’ll see both parts of speech working together in a sentence. For example, the sentence “I live in the house” uses both an article (“the”) and a preposition (“in”). It tells us the speaker is talking about a particular house and gives us information about their spatial relationship to their home. From this sentence, we know they don’t live outside, and they don’t live in just any old house on this block.

Featured image credit: SolStock/ iStock

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