154. Lone Prepositions after BE


Some prepositions can be used like an adverb after BE to express a very idiomatic meaning


English prepositions normally need a partner noun or pronoun, e.g. on time, across the sea (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). However, some can also be used rather informally after the verb BE with no partner word. I am not referring here to sentences like the flight that they are on, where a partner pronoun (that) is placed first, but rather to expressions like the match is on and the time is up. It is this usage without a partner noun that the word “lone” above refers to.

In fact, this kind of usage is probably not prepositional at all, since prepositions must always have a partner word. Instead, the positioning after BE – which imposes the sentence role of “complement” – indicates a noun, adjective or adverb usage (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).

It is most likely that lone “prepositions” after BE are actually adverbs. A major clue is their resemblance to the preposition-like adverbs in so-called “phrasal verbs” like set out and turn on (see 139. Phrasal Verbs and 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs): they tend to be made from the same limited group of prepositions.

Moreover, the meanings of lone “prepositions” are not always obvious. Usually this is because they extend the base preposition meaning in a metaphorical way, as described in the Guinlist post 7. Metaphorical Meanings. My primary aim here is to survey the variety of preposition-like words that can be used by themselves after BE, and to analyse some of the more idiomatic meanings that they can express.



The following prepositions can be used by themselves after the verb BE to express an idiomatic meaning:


Reflecting one of the meanings of the phrasal verb PUT ON, a frequent meaning of on by itself is “scheduled”. A typical use might be:

(a) There are six matches on in the evening.

Another common meaning – “operating” – is found with devices that we SWITCH ON, like lights and engines. Thus, saying that they are on means lights are shining, engines running.



This can be an opposite of on, meaning either “postponed” or “not operating”. A related meaning is “unavailable” to describe an item on a restaurant menu.

In addition, there is a meaning similar to that in the phrasal verb SET OFF, i.e. “starting” or “leaving”. It is common, for example, to hear racing commentators mark the start of a race with the words they’re off. In the film The Wizard of Oz, a song marking the start of a journey to meet him begins with the words We’re off to see the Wizard.

A third meaning is “no longer edible”. Sour milk, for example, may be referred to as off.



Probably the most common usage is to say that somebody is “present within their home/workplace”.

However, in certain restricted situations other meanings are found. In the games of cricket and baseball players are in when it is their turn to try and amass points on the field (see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture). In the context of a communal plan or decision, a person who is in has agreed to be involved in it (cp. the phrasal verb JOIN IN).



The main meaning of this word after BE is probably “absent on an errand”. The absence will be brief and could be from home or the workplace. An alternative is not in. Out can also be used in a variety of more restricted ways:

1. Lights can be described as out instead of off when they are no longer providing illumination (cp. TURN OUT/OFF).

2. Workers on strike are sometimes said to be out (cp. WALK OUT).

3. In the games of cricket and baseball, a player is out when s/he is forced to give up the points-scoring role on the field.

4. A person who has lost consciousness is sometimes said to be out.

5. A recently-released prisoner could also be labelled out.



Usually, saying that somebody is up means they are no longer in bed (cp. GET UP). In East Africa, there is an alternative meaning of “in a higher part of a building”, but Standard English prefers to say this with upstairs or, if the speaker is in a lower part of the same building, (up) above (see 26. One Word or Two? and the technical article Should East African university students change the way they speak English?).

Buildings can also be described as up, meaning that their construction has just been completed (cp. PUT UP). The expression time is up means that a deadline has been reached.



One use of down means the opposite of up in the “constructed” sense, i.e.  “dismantled” (cp. PULL DOWN). Related to this is a use with computer systems meaning “failing to operate”.

BE down could also describe someone who has recently moved from a higher part of a building to a lower one. Recent descent is also suggested, in a more metaphorical way, when down describes either someone “visiting the south from the north” (the speaker being also in the south – see 151. Ways of Using Compass Words), or body temperature that is “lower than before”. 

However, to say that someone is just in a lower place, without suggesting recent movement, it is better to use downstairs. A speaker higher up in the same place could also use (down) below.

One other meaning of down after BE is “unhappy” or “depressed”.



The basic meaning of this word (which is never actually a preposition) is similar to the “absent on an errand” meaning of out. However, it conveys a more extended absence: sleeping somewhere else for at least one night. A person on a foreign holiday, for example, might be described as away.

Less commonly, reflecting the meaning of GET AWAY, people can be labelled away after escaping the efforts of others to restrict them, for example on a sports field. Escapees from prison, however, would not normally be described as away.



A drill or boring machine can be described as through when it has reached the far side of what it is being used on (cp. BREAK THROUGH). A metaphorical extension of this meaning is “in telephone contact” (cp. GET THROUGH). A very informal usage, often applied to two people ending a romantic relationship, means “finished”.



There does not seem to be much difference between this word and the more adverbial nearby. Near is perhaps preferred with travellers rather than places, suggesting that the nearness is a result of movement.

The opposite of both words in the use after BE is rarely far but far away or far off. Far by itself seems more likely with ordinary verbs, particularly those that express movement rather than position, as in journeyed far.



A very frequent meaning of this after BE is “finished” (e.g. work is over). In addition, over can mean “here” or “visiting”, but only with a suggestion that the visitor has crossed some kind of barrier, such as the sea. For example an American in Europe might be asked:

(b) How long are you over for?



To describe someone as under is often to say that they are unconscious as a result of anaesthesia.


This completes my list of the more idiomatic meanings. In addition, there are prepositions that seem to be usable alone after BE without a particularly idiomatic meaning, such as after, above, before, below, inside, opposite and outside.

Prepositions that seem unable to be used at all by themselves after BE include across, beside, by, for, from, of, to, until, upon and with.


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