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A preposition is a word or phrase that shows a location in time (at, in, on) or space (near, on top of), or which indicates movement (to, from) or some other relationship with other parts of a sentence (about, with, for, instead of).
A preposition doesn’t stand alone but must go with a related noun, pronoun or gerund, which is called the object of the preposition. Prepositions allow essential information to be added to a sentence, look at how this works:
Dave laughed. – Dave laughed at all her jokes.
Katie danced. – Katie danced with Dave. – Katie danced with Dave at the party.
|on||Particular days||I will see you on Friday / I was born on the 21st|
|in||When an event happens within a period of time||We went to Paris in 2015, in August, in my childhood|
|at||A certain moment in time – these can be long or short||At night / At the weekend / At half past nine|
|since||From a certain point in the past until now||I’ve lived here since 1998|
|for||Shows the duration of an activity||I’ve worked here for 6 years / we will go there for the whole summer|
|ago||When an event happened at a certain point in the past||He left 2 minutes ago, 5 years ago|
|before||Earlier than another event or point in time||I always go swimming before I start work / Have I met you before? We need to finish before Friday|
|to & past||Telling the time||ten to nine (9:50) / ten past six (6:10)|
|from – to (till / until)||Marking the beginning (from) and end (to – or till, until) of a period of time||I work from nine to five / He’s on holiday until next Friday|
|by||Refers to deadlines, the action should happen before this time||I want you home by 6 o’clock / By the time I got home I was really tired|
|in||Referring to a location within an area||He’s in the kitchen / I work in London / She’s in the library|
|in||Within an enclosed space||in the box / in the car|
|into & out of||Movements in and out of areas or enclosed spaces||She got out of the taxi / He jumped into the water / He put it into his pocket / She took it out of the box|
|at||Describes a specific location – or attendance of an event (but see below for much more detail)||I live at number 12 / He’s at the door / I’ll meet you at the station / I’m at my desk all day / Are you at work now? / Was he at the party?|
|on||Located on a surface / occasionally used as alternative to ‘by’ – see below for more uses||I have a picture of you on my wall / He’s got mud on his clothes / There’s a rug on the floor / He lives on the coast|
|on||Standing or sitting on a raised platform – often for transport||on horseback / on my motorbike / get on the bus / stand on a chair / I love being on stage|
|near||When 2 things are close together||I live near London / I don’t want your dog near me!|
|next to, beside||When something is very close||Jane is standing beside Mark in that picture / My house is next to the canal|
|by||Can mean ‘near’ or ‘next to’||I live by the sea (near) / Who is that standing by John? (next to)|
|under||When something is covered / when something is less than something else||The cat is under the table / I wore a jumper under my coat / He is under 16 / She finished in under 40 minutes|
|below||When something is not directly under something else / with measurements||The sun went down below the horizon / We made camp below the summit / The city is mostly below sea level / It’s below freezing for most of the winter|
|under / below||Lower than||The plates are in the drawer (below/under) the sink|
|over||Move above another object||We flew over the desert / She climbed over the wall|
|over||Covered by something / more than something||Put a jacket over your shirt! / Is he over 16 years of age?|
|above||Higher than something else – we can also use ‘over’||It’s always sunny above the clouds. / Put your hands above your heads / There is a mirror above the sink|
|across||Getting from one side to another||We walked across the bridge. / She swam across the lake.|
|through||Movement across an enclosed or defined area||We drove through the tunnel. / They walked through the park.|
|from & to||These describe the beginning (from) and end (to) of any movement / from therefore refers to the ‘origin’ of a thing or person||Pass the wine to John please / He has gone to a meeting / I’ve just come home from work|
|from||The origin of a person or thing||Where do you come from? / I’ve just got an email from them / This wine is from France|
|towards||Movement in the direction of something||The train was coming towards me!|
|onto||Movement to the top of something||The cat jumped onto the table|
|of||A part or quantity / belonging to||some of those tomatoes / one of my friends / some of that wine / the director of the movie / the CEO of the company|
|by||Who made it / how it was done||It’s a book by Mark Twain / You make it by mixing all the ingredients|
|off||Leaving a raised platform – including vehicles||They came off stage at about 10 / Can you take all your stuff off my desk? / It’s hard to get off a camel / We need to get all the passengers off the train|
|by||Used to measure changes||Prices have risen by 10% / The temperature has fallen by 10 degrees / I came by bus today|
|at||For age||He learned Russian at 45|
|about||The content or topic of any spoken or written communication||We were talking about you. / What is that film about? / It’s a book about Roman history|
We use prepositions in several different but related ways, and these are best summarized by The Cambridge Dictionary online. This explains how prepositions are used, but not why we choose a particular preposition for a particular job – and this is the hardest aspect of prepositions for students to learn.
There are many reasons why students find prepositions so difficult to master, the most important of which is that these words are used in very different ways in various different languages, and are even absent from some. Teachers and textbooks are usually great at explaining prepositions of time, space and movement but less good at explaining why we look at the board in the classroom, but look for our keys down the back of the sofa!
Sometimes teachers tell students to simply memorize common expressions. This works well with elementary students – but what about upper intermediate students preparing for an exam?
To make matters worse, teachers and writers sometimes even agree with students that there is no logic to prepositions! This quote is from an article called, ‘How to help learners of English understand prepositions’:
‘…there is no logical way of deciding which preposition goes with a particular noun, verb or adjective.’
That’s amazing, isn’t it? The article then illustrates this point with the examples of prepositions which collocate with the adjective available.
available from / available for / available to / available in
It is small wonder that many students hate prepositions; to them, they are just a bunch of random little words that native speakers ‘throw’ at a text. There is some secret to their usage that only native speakers know about, and which they are very much keeping to themselves!
However, all is not lost! The abstract or ‘idiomatic’ use of a preposition is related to its physical use. Let’s look at an example using AT for direction:
Here AT refers to the direction or ‘orientation’ of the action – but we don’t need movement, direction is enough, we simply aim AT a target.
And we can use the preposition to talk about targets generally:
AT only implies one direction, which is why when we shout at somebody we don’t necessarily expect a reply – and why talking at somebody you meet on the bus is rather a rude way to communicate!
Sometimes two prepositions seem equally ‘correct’ in a sentence:
This situation is called ‘confluence’ and means that two different things are true at the same time. So, Mary is AT an event called ‘a meeting’, but she is also IN a situation called ‘a meeting’. This doesn’t mean that AT and IN have the same meaning, just that both things are true at the same time! We can make this clearer by talking about other events and situations:
Sometimes a verb and a preposition can be separated by other words:
Words with the same, or similar meanings usually collocate with the same prepositions:
Also, if we choose a verb rather than a noun or adjective to express our meaning we can still use the same preposition:
Some students think, or have been told, that we never finish a sentence with a preposition. This is one of the ‘classic myths’ of English, in fact it is quite common – especially in questions.
Always keep a positive frame of mind and never agree that ‘prepositions are impossible’ – there is a basic logic behind them, and many repeating patterns. This blog features several of these patterns and encourages you to look for more with your teacher.
Don’t worry – mistakes with prepositions do not have a big negative impact on your intended meaning. However, frequent mistakes will eventually lose you marks in speaking and writing exams, and they are specifically tested for on the FCE and CAE Use Of English paper.
Please discuss any problems you have with your teacher – as websites such as Stack Exchange or Word Reference Forum seem to be full of comments from people who confuse their personal opinions with general rules of English usage! The debates are often rather long and rather pointless.
Always be tolerant of preposition use that you don’t quite understand – you might interact with non-native speakers of a lower level than yourself, or with native speakers who talk too fast, or are simply careless!
Finally, make sure that you keep a note of any preposition usage that you find interesting or difficult to understand and don’t forget to contact us here on the blog with any comments or problems!