Using Prepositions

Second only to articles, prepositions are a difficult topic for second language learners. But for native speakers, understanding of how to use prepositions is acquired during childhood. If you are a second language learner, you will learn correct usage of prepositions through observation of how they are used in various circumstances and likely some trail and error as well.

Our purpose in this section is to give you some basic guidelines for using prepositions in writing. If you are interested in detailed explanations and examples of prepositions, please consult second language grammar textbooks or a good dictionary, which will tell you which preposition is required in a particular context. We recommend Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (7th ed, 2005) or Longman: Dictionary of Contemporary English (4th ed, 2003).

Simply put, a preposition is a linking word that joins an intransitive verb (i.e., a verb that does not require an object) or an adjective to a noun. For a transitive verb, there is no need for a preposition, as in

You can see that in 1), a preposition is not necessary because the verb "stab" is a transitive verb; the verb is followed immediately by an object, "John." However, in 2), you need a preposition because the verb "to go" is an intransitive verb, and in 3), you also need a preposition because you have the adjective "mad." With aid from prepositions, you can express the relationship between an adjective or intransitive verb and a noun. In 2), for example, the relationship is that of direction (i.e., it tells you to which place you go), and in 3), the relationship is that of source (i.e., it tells you where the speaker's anger is directed).

Because prepositions express a relationship between an adjective or intransitive verb and a noun, in order for you to use prepositions correctly, it is important to know two things:

  1. the kind of relationship required by that verb or adjective and the noun, and
  2. the kind of meaning that each preposition has (e.g., "to" expresses the end point of direction, "at" expresses the source, etc).

Without such understanding, you risk choosing a wrong preposition. To use the same examples above, the verb "to go," which is a motion verb, is compatible with only those prepositions that express direction and movement. You can say, for example, "I go through the school," "I go past the school," "I go by the school," or "I go into the school," each expressing different meanings according to the meaning of the preposition. However, you cannot say "I go at the school" or "I go on the school."

A lot of mistakes of preposition usage are caused by transferring the concepts of prepositions in your first language to English. In English, for example, we express the time periods of the day—morning, afternoon, and evening—with the use of the preposition "in" (hence, in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening), while in Spanish, the preposition "por" is used (por la tardes, por la manana), and yet in Italian, the preposition "di" is required (di mattina, di notte).

Moreover, in your language, a particular verb may be a transitive verb (thus requiring no preposition), whereas in English, the same verb is an intransitive verb (which requires a preposition), or vice versa. In Italian, for example, no preposition is required in "Io ascolto la musica" (literally, "I listen music"), because "ascolto" or "to listen" is a transitive verb in Italian; however, in English, "to listen" is an intransitive verb, and thus requires a preposition "to." Consult a good dictionary to check whether a verb is transitive or intransitive in English.

Finally, when reading or listening to English in everyday life, you should observe how prepositions are generally used. Most of the commonly used verbs, adjectives, or nouns will require fixed prepositions. Below are examples:

The list goes on and on. Observing expressions like these in your everyday life, you'll gradually acquire the correct usage of prepositions.

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