This article attempts to explain to English Language learners how to make the correct choice regarding the use of prepositions in a sentence.
Learning English has a lot to do with placing the correct words in the correct place. In my experience, I have seen that many learners, no matter what their age or proficiency level, do sometimes make mistakes when using prepositions. The innocuous looking ‘on’ and ‘in’, if used incorrectly, can completely change the meaning of a sentence, especially when used in collocation with other words, forming what is known as ‘phrasal verbs’.
Personally, I find prepositions to be quite interesting, in fact I find English grammar itself to be quite fascinating. But it is to be expected, isn’t it? After all, I am an English Teacher! I guess, however, that there are many who do not agree with me! Whenever the topic of grammar comes up in my classes, I can sense a palpable reluctance. This is natural as English grammar does have that kind of an aura. But believe you me, it is quite the opposite, it is actually quite simple. I hope to prove it to you and by the end of this article, I am confident that you too will share my perspective, at least as far as the use of prepositions are concerned.
I find use of prepositions to be similar to the minding of ‘p’s and ‘q’s while speaking. It just adds that extra clarity and meaning to the spoken or written English. Whether you are an ESL student or a native speaker, there is always going to be an occasion, when you are confused with exactly what preposition to use to ensure that the writing appears smooth.
Firstly, let us try to understand what a preposition is. In the simplest of terms, a preposition is a word placed (positioned) before a noun or pronoun to show in what relation the person or thing denoted by the noun or pronoun stands to something else. Confused? Well, let me try and explain with the help of a couple of examples:
- He fell into the river.
In this sentence the preposition ‘into’ clearly denotes where ‘He’ is positioned vis-a-vis ‘the river’.
- The book is on the table.
Again we see that ‘on’ is giving us a distinct idea about the positioning of ‘the book’ with reference to ‘the table’.
Now, that we have developed a fair idea of what function prepositions perform, let us try to get a clearer idea of their applications. Actually, there are no well defined rules laid down regarding this. But, there are certain contexts based on which a learner can comprehend the correct use of prepositions. So, let’s begin!
With reference to space: ‘at’ is used with the names of small villages and towns, while ‘in’ is used with the names of big cities, states, countries. Here are some examples:
- He lives at St. Augustine in Florida.
- Jasmine lives at Camden Town in London.
- The Prime Minister of India lives in New Delhi.
As you can see, in all the above sentences the relatively smaller areas are taking on the preposition ‘at’ while the larger areas are taking ‘in’. So, simply by looking at the preposition used, a reader would be able to form a definite idea whether the place referred to is a big or small one. It is a good idea to give a thought to what it is that you want to convey to the reader before deciding on the appropriate preposition.
With reference to time: ‘at’ is used for a point of time, while ‘in’ is generally used for a period of time in which something happens. Here are some examples:
- Lucy came to school at 7’o clock in the morning.
- They will leave at sunset.
- She was born in 1986.
So, we note that in all the sentences, ‘at’ is stating a ‘point of time’ and ‘in’ is implying a ‘period of time’ – slightly longer concept of time. Again, when applying, it is better to understand the context of use.
‘In’ is applied when we refer to something at rest, whereas ‘into’ is used to denote motion.
Let us look at the following sentences:
- There are in the room. → rest
- I went into the house. → motion
Once again, the meaning conveyed by the context determines the preposition.
‘On’ is used for particular dates and days. For example:
- Mr. Robert passed away on Sunday.
- I was born on 27th October, 1969.
Hence, we see that if a definite day or date is stated, the preposition ‘on’ is applied.
‘On’ also denotes rest while ‘upon’ generally denotes motion. The following sentences illustrate the point:
- They are sitting on the floor. → rest
- The cat sprang upon the bed. → motion
Anything associated with movement, uses ‘upon’, while ‘on’ is applied to anything at ‘rest’.
In addition ‘on’ is also used to indicate a device. For example:
- He is on the phone right now.
In, Within, Before
‘In’ denotes at the end of a period of time, whereas ‘within’ denotes before the expiry of a period of time; ‘before’ is used when we refer to a fixed point in time. For example:
- He will return in a week. → at the end of the week
- He will return within a week. → before the expiry of a week
- He will return before 16th May. → before a fixed time
Thank God for prepositions, otherwise how would you know when ‘he’ would return?
‘After’ signals the end of a period of time in the past, while ‘in’ denotes the end of a period of time in the future. For example:
- They returned after a year. → past: when a year was over
- They will return in a year. → future: when a year will be over
This is an interesting one! ‘after’ and ‘behind’ both refer to time and place, depending on the context. Here’s some examples:
- The bus came after 8 am. → time
- They ran after the man. → place
- The train was running behind schedule. → time
- She stood behind the tree. → place
What do you have to say to this? Once again, it is the context that gives the clue to choosing the correct answer.
There are prepositions which have various applications. ‘By’ is used in passive voice to denote the agent. It is also applied to signify ‘beside’, ‘alone’, ‘according to’, or ‘not later than’. Here are some examples:
- The thief was caught by the police. → agent
- She stood by her mother. → beside
- He sat by himself. → alone
- It is 2 o’clock by my watch. → according to
- Smith will be here by 6 pm. → not later than
‘With’, on the other hand, implies the instrument with which an action is carried out. It also denotes ‘in company’, ‘at the same time’, or ‘in spite of’. A few examples are as follows:
- She was writing with a blue pen. → instrument of action
- Kate was dancing with me. → in company
- Birds rise with the sun. → at the same time
- With all his faults, I like him. → in spite of
There two prepositions which mean exactly the same, i.e. they refer to up to a certain time. They can be used interchangeably although some consider ‘till’ to be less formal in approach than ‘until’. For example:
- Wait till he returns.
- I will wait until the rain stops.
So, the tone of your writing will determine which one you will choose. Interestingly, they can also be used as conjunctions!
‘Between’ is used to refer to two persons or things, whereas ‘among’ is for more than two people or things. For example:
- The four friends quarrelled among themselves. → more than two persons
- A dispute arose between the sun and the wind. → two things
A simple additional ‘s’ makes a big difference in this case! ‘Beside’ means at the side of, while ‘besides’ mean in addition to. For example:
- My house is beside the lake. → at the side of
- Besides a bird, he also had a cat. → in addition to
‘Since’ is used for a point of time in the past. ‘For’ is used for a period of time. Let’s look at the following examples:
- I have not met David since last week. → point of time
- She has been ill for two weeks. → period of time
‘For’ is also used to indicate use of something, and also reason. For example:
- This hall has been reserved for a wedding. → use of something
- I am sorry for you. → reason
These are two prepositions which you will frequently come across. ‘Of’ denotes relations, amount, or number as well as relation or connection. For example:
- The highlight of the movie was its climax. → relation
- This is painting of my grandfather. → reference
- I had three bowls of ice-cream. → number
‘To’ implies direction, a relationship, time period, or an end point. For example:
- I am going to a restaurant. → direction
- I have e-mailed my response to his query. → relationship
- Robin slept from 6 am to 2 pm yesterday. → time period
- The bid at the auction went up to $2000. → end point
Besides, the above mentioned prepositions, we have many others like ‘along’ (through a length), ‘above’ (in a higher position), ‘against’ (opposition), ‘around’ (movement in circles or approximation), and many more.
Although normally used in the middle of a sentence, sometimes prepositions may be used at the end as well. For example:
- This is the book I was searching for.
One thing is clear that using the correct preposition will add a lot to your writing or speaking. Although it may seem a little complicated, the trick is to practice well. Then one day you will earn the title of ‘Preposition Master’.