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English Prepositions

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.

List of English Prepositions:

Prepositions of time.

PrepositionUsageExample
onParticular daysI will see you on Friday / I was born on the 21st
inWhen an event happens within a period of timeWe went to Paris in 2015, in August, in my childhood
atA certain moment in time – these can be long or shortAt night / At the weekend / At half past nine
sinceFrom a certain point in the past until nowI’ve lived here since 1998
forShows the duration of an activityI’ve worked here for 6 years / we will go there for the whole summer
agoWhen an event happened at a certain point in the pastHe left 2 minutes ago, 5 years ago
beforeEarlier than another event or point in timeI always go swimming before I start work / Have I met you before? We need to finish before Friday
to & pastTelling the timeten 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 timeI work from nine to five / He’s on holiday until next Friday
byRefers to deadlines, the action should happen before this timeI want you home by 6 o’clock / By the time I got home I was really tired

Prepositions of Place & Movement.

PrepositionUsageExample
inReferring to a location within an areaHe’s in the kitchen / I work in London / She’s in the library
inWithin an enclosed spacein the box / in the car
into & out ofMovements in and out of areas or enclosed spacesShe got out of the taxi / He jumped into the water / He put it into his pocket / She took it out of the box
atDescribes 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?
onLocated on a surface / occasionally used as alternative to ‘by’ – see below for more usesI 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
onStanding or sitting on a raised platform – often for transporton horseback / on my motorbike / get on the bus / stand on a chair / I love being on stage
nearWhen 2 things are close togetherI live near London / I don’t want your dog near me!
next to, besideWhen something is very closeJane is standing beside Mark in that picture / My house is next to the canal
byCan mean ‘near’ or ‘next to’I live by the sea (near) / Who is that standing by John? (next to)
underWhen something is covered / when something is less than something elseThe cat is under the table / I wore a jumper under my coat / He is under 16 / She finished in under 40 minutes
belowWhen something is not directly under something else / with measurementsThe 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 / belowLower thanThe plates are in the drawer (below/under) the sink
overMove above another objectWe flew over the desert / She climbed over the wall
overCovered by something / more than somethingPut a jacket over your shirt! / Is he over 16 years of age?
aboveHigher 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
acrossGetting from one side to anotherWe walked across the bridge. / She swam across the lake.
throughMovement across an enclosed or defined areaWe drove through the tunnel. / They walked through the park.
from & toThese describe the beginning (from) and end (to) of any movement / from therefore refers to the ‘origin’ of a thing or personPass the wine to John please / He has gone to a meeting / I’ve just come home from work
fromThe origin of a person or thingWhere do you come from? / I’ve just got an email from them / This wine is from France
towardsMovement in the direction of somethingThe train was coming towards me!
ontoMovement to the top of somethingThe cat jumped onto the table

Other important prepositions.

PrepositionUsageExample
ofA part or quantity / belonging tosome of those tomatoes / one of my friends / some of that wine / the director of the movie / the CEO of the company
byWho made it / how it was doneIt’s a book by Mark Twain / You make it by mixing all the ingredients
offLeaving a raised platform – including vehiclesThey 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
byUsed to measure changesPrices have risen by 10% / The temperature has fallen by 10 degrees / I came by bus today
atFor ageHe learned Russian at 45
aboutThe content or topic of any spoken or written communicationWe were talking about you. / What is that film about? / It’s a book about Roman history

How are prepositions used?

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.

How can you learn English prepositions?

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:

  • John threw the dart at the dartboard but hit and broke the mirror next to it.
  • They fired cannons at the walls of the city.

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.

  • She’s gazing at me with those big blue eyes.

And we can use the preposition to talk about targets generally:

  • This upgrade is aimed at making the website more user friendly.
  • This exercise is aimed at improving your upper body strength.

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!

Study confluence.

Sometimes two prepositions seem equally ‘correct’ in a sentence:

  • Mary is at/in a meeting.

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:

  • Mary was at the Rio Carnival recently.
  • Mary is in really good shape after her holiday.
  • Mary is in a great mood today.
  • Mary was at the movies last night.

Study separation.

Sometimes a verb and a preposition can be separated by other words:

  • These shops provide many of us with a handy place to pop into 24 hours a day. (3 words)
  • He compared MRI scans of the brains of 28 of the world’s top 50 memory champions with the brains of “normal” people. (14 words!)

Study synonyms and word forms.

Words with the same, or similar meanings usually collocate with the same prepositions:

  • Rely on / depend on
  • Search for / look for

Also, if we choose a verb rather than a noun or adjective to express our meaning we can still use the same preposition:

  • Donate it to charity / Make a donation to charity
  • I am interested in linguistics / I have a keen interest in linguistics

Word order and prepositions.

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.

  • People talking when I’m studying is something I can’t really put up with.
  • Who were you just talking to?
  • Where did you get that lovely coat from?
  • I don’t know what I would use it for.
  • He’s the kind of politician I could never vote for!

Discussion

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!