The Meaning and Use of the Preposition ‘By’

This post looks at the use of the preposition ‘by’. Prepositions are small but powerful words that play a vital role in sentence structure and meaning. They help establish relationships between different elements in a sentence, such as nouns, pronouns and phrases, by indicating location, time, direction, possession and more. Prepositions can be challenging for non-native speakers of English due to their nuanced use. Because prepositions tend to vary across languages, it is very difficult to give an exclusive translation from say Dutch to English, or Spanish to English, and one preposition frequently translates to two or three in the other language, and vice versa.

Mastering prepositions is essential for clear and accurate communication because the use of an inappropriate preposition in combination with a certain verb can distinctly alter the intended meaning of a sentence. Like vocabulary, prepositions are learned by imitation and internalisation by first language learners (the mother tongue) and for second language learners this process is slower and more tedious. Learning the various contexts in which prepositions are used is the mark of an advanced speaker of a language, but sometimes it can seem like tossing the ball on a roulette wheel when deciding which preposition to go for!

This website already includes a post on the parts of speech and the basics about prepositions can be read there. There are around 150 prepositions altogether in the English language, but the most commonly used and confused are ‘along’, ‘at’, ‘by’, ‘during’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘in’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘to’ and ‘with’.

This post is going to focus on the preposition: by.

learning prepositions early

The word ‘by’

The word ‘by’ in Old English (450 – 1100 AD) was ‘bī’, which primarily meant ‘near’ or ‘by the side of’. The Old English ‘bī’ can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic ‘*bi,’ which also meant ‘near’ or ‘by’. Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed ancestral language from which all the Germanic languages, such as English, Norwegian and Danish, are believed to have descended. The Proto-Germanic ‘*bi’ finds its roots in the Proto-Indo-European root ‘*ambhi’, which conveyed the idea of ‘around’ or ‘both sides’. Proto-Indo-European is the hypothesised ancient linguistic precursor from which a vast majority of Indo-European languages, including English, Russian and Hindi, are thought to have originated.

As was often the case, over time, the meaning of the word expanded, while the length of it naturally shortened. In present day English, ‘by’ in has grown beyond expressing just physical proximity to include various other functions and contexts. The following explanations detail its uses today.

Expressing proximity or location

As explained in the post on prepositions, some prepositions are ‘spatial’; they tell us the relative place or space in which something occurs. ‘By’ can indicate proximity or location, often used to describe the position of something or someone:

  • The bus stop is located by the park
  • Go and stand by the door
  • He is sitting by his desk

Denoting time or a deadline

As also explained in the post on prepositions, some prepositions are ‘temporal’; they tell us the relative position of something in time. ‘By’ can be used to refer to a particular point in time in relation to clock time or specific occasions:

  • Please submit your report by Friday
  • The project must be completed by the end of the month
  • Your package will arrive by 5pm
  • By this time next week, I will have completed my assignment

Indicating the means or method

‘By’ can also be used to show the means or method used to accomplish an action. It describes the way something is done:

  • I travelled to Paris by train
  • The message was sent by email
  • He solved the problem by using a computer programme

Indicating the agent of an action

‘By’ is also used to indicate the agent of an action, it shows who or what is responsible for performing the action:

  • The book was written by Jane Jones
  • The painting was created by Picasso
  • The window was broken by the wind
  • This house was built by a leading architect

Notice that in each of these examples the ‘passive voice’ is used. Please look at the relevant post for more details on that.

Indicating the author of a creative work

And, ‘by’ can be used when referring to works of art, literature, or other creations, it is used to indicate the author or creator:

  • The song was written by Bryan Adams
  • The sculpture was made by Michelangelo
  • The film was directed by Steven Spielberg

Phrasal verbs and common collocations

A phrasal verb is a native English expression containing a verb and a preposition (and sometimes also an adverb or other parts of speech); it is a phrase that functions as a verb. The English language, along with a number of other Central European languages, but perhaps slightly more so, is notorious for having a large number of phrasal verbs. The following are some of the better known verbs that collocate with ‘by’, along with some phrasal verbs with their definitions provided.

  • Get by = To manage or survive with minimal resources or effort
  • Drop by = To visit someone briefly or make an unplanned visit
  • Go by = To pass or elapse (time) or to be guided by something
  • Stand by = To be ready or available to help or support
  • Live by = To follow or adhere to a particular principle or code of conduct
  • Swear by = To have strong confidence in or trust something or someone
  • Pass by = To go past something or someone without stopping
  • Drop by = To deliver or leave something at a place casually or quickly
  • Get by = To cope or survive under difficult circumstances
  • Run by = To briefly explain or mention something for approval or feedback
  • Abide by = To comply with or follow rules, laws or agreements
  • Pass by = To ignore or disregard something or someone
  • Be taken aback by = To be surprised or shocked by something

As is common with phrasal verbs, these examples are not all simply a collocation of a verb and a preposition, and some of these word combinations are puzzlingly not true to their literal meanings!

Exercises to practise

Have a go at the following exercises to see whether ‘by’ is the correct preposition in the given contexts.

Created on By Michelle

Using the Preposition 'By'

Practise using the preposition 'by'

1 / 14

I will have the answers for you --- next Friday

2 / 14

You must abide --- the laws of the land

3 / 14

Could you run that last sentence --- me again?

4 / 14

I run this business ---- a number of other people

5 / 14

That photograph was taken --- Sarah Smith

6 / 14

Steve wrote the book together  --- with his mother

7 / 14

What did you mean ---- that comment?

8 / 14

Are you passing ---- the grocery shop today?

9 / 14

Please don't swear ---- people; it isn't polite

10 / 14

I swear --- this product; it always works

11 / 14

I live according --- a strict routine

12 / 14

Please drop the package --- at the neighbour's house

13 / 14

We will get --- with the money we have

14 / 14

Would you like to come --- this evening?

Your score is

The average score is 89%



The use of particular prepositions can vary depending on the precise context, and sometimes different prepositions can be used interchangeably:

  • She is sitting by her desk
  • She is sitting at her desk

Sometimes a person tries to substitute ‘by’ in other situations, and both prepositions work in the sentence, but the meaning of it is changed:

  • I won’t be there until 10 o’clock ( but I will be there around 10 o’clock)
  • I won’t be there by 10 o’clock (I still won’t be there at 10 o’clock)

These examples show that there may be circumstances when another preposition is suitable for a sentence, and that one must always keep in mind whether ‘by’ is being used to express time or space, or whether it is being used as part of a collocation, also known as a dependent preposition.

If you have any questions or comments, please do add them below.


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Yates Ph.D., Jean. Prepositions, 3rd edn (Barron’s Education, 2020)

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