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last updated: 4/10/2012

FAQ - English Prepositions (Music Library)


Cook Music Library Brief Guides, No. 26

Prepositions are connecting words that show the relationship between a noun or pronoun and some other word or words in the sentence:

  • In this week's Newsweek, there is an article about Lorin Maazel's appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic. [in relates article indirectly to Newsweek; about relates article to appointment; as relates appointment to director; and of relates director to New York Philharmonic]

It is possible to avoid many prepositions and pile up nouns instead. But that makes the relationships between the words in the sentence more difficult to understand, especially on a first reading. Compare:

  • This week's Newsweek has an article about Lorin Maazel's New York Philharmonic music directorship appointment.

Or worse:

  • Newsweek this week has a Lorin Maazel New York Philharmonic music directorship appointment article.

Prepositions can also relate to an adverb:

  • Horenstein's performances of Mahler symphonies are by far the best. [by relates to far]

to a phrase:

  • The question of how best to publicize the concert came up at the meeting. [of relates to how best to publicize the concert]

or to a clause:

  • He told everyone about what he had heard. [about relates to what he had heard]

It has been estimated that nine simple prepositions account for over 90% of usage: at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, and with. But there are about sixty other simple prepositions, including some with two syllables (above, below, until) and some with three syllables (notwithstanding, underneath).

Compound prepositions (also called prepositional phrases or complex prepositions) consist of two words (apart from, as for, aside from, because of, by means of, contrary to, instead of, out of, together with, up to) or three words (as well as, for the sake of, in case of, in front of, in place of, in spite of, in view of, on account of, with regard to).



among (used with: more than two people or things)

between (used with: two people or things)

  • We could not decide between Rubinstein and Richter as soloist for the concert.

  • The parts were divided among the members of the orchestra.

beside (at the side of; preposition)

besides (in addition to; adverb)

  • Ravel sat down beside Stravinsky, and the two composers worked out their differences.

  • Besides piano concertos, Mozart wrote solo concertos for the flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn.

in (generally shows location)

into (generally shows direction)

in to (the adverb "in" followed by the preposition "to")

  • Bell walked in the auditorium, testing its acoustics.

  • Bell walked into the auditorium to great applause.

  • After walking in the auditorium, Bell went in to dinner.

Prepositions take a direct object (accusative case):

  • for them

  • between us

  • between you and me

  • This score belongs to my brother and me.

Be careful of situations in which two or more verbs in a string take different prepositions:

  • not: "... music related, inspired, or based upon works of literature."

  • but: "... music related to, inspired by, or based upon works of literature."

  • or even better: "... music related to works of literature, inspired by them, or based upon them."

But when both words take the same preposition, it need not be repeated:

  • In the Middle Ages, composers were both obedient and submissive to their patrons.


"In terms of"

This phrase has become an all-purpose preposition in modern English. In virtually all cases, however, the sentence becomes clearer and often more efficient if the phrase is replaced with a more specific preposition (such as "as" or "in") or another compound preposition (such as "in relation to") or else the phrase is simply omitted:

  • Hans‑Georg Gadamer outlined a theory of historical inquiry in terms of a dialectical process....

  • Better: Hans-Georg Gadamer outlined a theory of historical inquiry as a dialetical process....

  • Language could only be redeemed for theoretical purposes if it was understood as bearing the mark of musical and other forms of non‑verbal communication. And these, for Blacking, were to be understood ultimately in terms of the body.

  • Better: And these, for Blacking, were to be understood ultimately in relation to the body.

  • In terms of form and timbre, this work is among the most striking of the composer's early efforts.

  • Better: In form and timbre, this work....

  • In terms of video, Jackson also appeared to be repeating himself, returning over and over to the street‑gang, West Side Story‑style, mise‑en‑scène of "Beat it."

  • Better: In his videos, Jackson also appeared....

  • Indeed, in terms of the minuet‑as‑danced the global repeat of the form would represent a kind of avarta (literally, "turning back").

  • Better: Indeed, considered in relation to the minuet-as-danced....

  • Its true form becomes clear only on close analysis in terms of its effect in performance.

    Better: Its true form becomes clear only on close analysis of its effect in performance.

[The first sentence in each case is taken from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., online; accessed 7/10/01]

  • Conducting is attractive in terms of its pay.

  • Better: Conducting is well paid.


Ending Sentences with Prepositions

Many books on English discourage writers from ending a sentence with a preposition.But if the preposition is really part of the verb, then it is generally correct to end with that phrase and certainly more elegant:

  • Such resistance on the part of the orchestra was something he would not put up with.

  • compare: Such resistance on the part of the orchestra was something up with which he would not put.

  • Sir Simon Rattle is a force to reckon with.

  • compare: Sir Simon Rattle is a force with which to reckon.


Some Common Combinations Involving Prepositions

according to, apart from, as far as, attend to

capable of, capacity to, conform to

deprive of, different from, due to

eligible for

fascinated by, fear of/for, forbid to

hindrance to

impressed by, in conformity with, interest in

means of, meet with (only with abstractions, such as difficulties, delays), mistake for

ought to, owing to

participate in, prevent from, pride in, privilege of, prejudice against, prohibit from

report of/on, respect for

separate from, subject to

tamper with, temerity to, tinker with

unconscious of


Words Having Different Meanings with Different Prepositions

adapted for:    The modern piano is adapted for loud playing.

adapted to:    After living in France for ten years, he became well adapted to its culture.

adapted from:    Stravinsky adapted Pulcinella from works attributed to Pergolesi.

agree on:    The faculty agreed on limiting the number of performance majors.

agree to:    Do you agree to this proposal?

agree with:    He agrees with me on this subject.

argue about:    Do not argue about this question.

argue for:    They argued for the abolition of slavery.

argue with:    He argues with me constantly.

compare to:    Beethoven is such a giant in the world of music that he has been compared to Shakespeare, Goethe, and Michelangelo. [his achievement is of the same order as theirs]

compare with:    Compared with Grout, all other music textbooks have pitiful sales figures. [any like or unlike things may be compared]

consist in:    Success does not always consist in achieving wealth.

consist of:    The symphony consists of four movements.

differ about:    We differ about the musical value of minimalism.

differ from:    The Bärenreiter score differs from the International score in its approach to editing.

differ on:    Forte and Schenker differ on the best way to analyze this piece.

differ with:    Forte differs with Schenker on the best way to analyze this piece.

disapppointed by:    Debussy was disappointed by Viñes's failure to understand the structure of the piece.

disappointed in:    Surprisingly, conductors are often disappointed in their income.

disappointed with:    I am disappointed with the way the fund-raising is going.

live at:    Like Dorothy Parker, he lived at the Algonquin Hotel.

live in:    For the last three years, he has lived in Paris.

live on:    She, on the other hand, has lived on Broadway her whole life.

reference to:    He made a reference to Taruskin's new book on Mussorgsky.

reference on:    She gave me a good reference on Mussorgsky.

sympathy with:    I am in sympathy with your stand on minimalism.

sympathy for:    Fenby showed great sympathy for Delius's condition.

wait for:    Before writing his setting of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, he waited for the publication of Mahler's.

wait on:    Mozart expected Constanze to wait on him night and day.


A Few Verbs that Include the Sense of a Preposition

discuss (means "speak about")

enter (in the sense of "go into")

  • When Bell entered the auditorium, he was greeted by a crowd of fans.


  • If you perform from that photocopy, I believe you will infringe the publisher's copyright.

meet (used with persons)

  • When Stravinsky met Ravel, the two celebrated composers got along well.


  • The School of Music has named Gwyn Richards its new dean.


  • When Bell visited Carnegie Hall, he was surrounded by fans.

David Lasocki 1/15/02

    last updated: 4/10/2012