Prepositions: Small but Tricky Little Things…

By David Rose

Happy New Year everyone 🙂

I’m often asked about prepositions, for example: ‘Why are they so complicated?’, ‘What’s the rule?’ and What’s the best way to learn them?’

Well, in a bid to deal with these and other such relevant questions, let’s start with the ‘technical’ definition of a preposition:

“A word used before a noun, a noun phrase or a pronoun, connecting it to another word, for example ‘We jumped in the lake’, and ‘She drove slowly down the track”

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus 3rd Edition, Cambridge University Press

Possibly interesting, but really not useful in helping you consistently choose the correct ones in your written and spoken English, is it…?

So, now  I’d like you to consider my more ‘practical’ definition:

A) Types

How many types are there? Two – variable (e.g. I live inBrussels, I was born in November) and fixed (e.g. it depends on you).

B) Difficulty

Are they ‘easy’? No, even advanced learners of English find prepositions difficult, as a 1:1 translation is usually not possible. One preposition in your native language might have several translations depending on the situation.

C) Rules

Is there one ‘rule’ to help me choose the correct one? No, the only real way to learn them is by heart.

This second definition leads us to two important conclusions:

(i) Prepositions are ‘tricky’ – impossible to reliably translate, of several types and without one overall rule to guide you in their use

(ii) The only way to really master them – so you can automatically choose correctly – is to learn them by heart

So, having established that you need a clear set of ‘maps’ of these prepositions to learn and for reference in you writing…

…here they are!

1. Variable Prepositions

Variable prepositions can be sub-divided into three groups: time, place and ‘important others’:

(a) Time

Prepositions of Time

Prepositions of Time

(b) Place/Position

Prepositions of Place and Position A

Prepositions of Place and Position (1/2)

Prepositions of Place and Position B

Prepositions of Place and Position (2/2)

(c) ‘Other’

Other Miscellaneous Prepositions

Other Useful Prepositions

2. Dependent Prepositions

Dependent prepositions… by a lovely coincidence of cosmic balance… can also be sub-divided into three groups: verb, adjective and noun.

(a) Verb + preposition

Verb and Dependent Preposition

Verb and Dependent Preposition

(b) Adjective + preposition

Adjective and Dependent Preposition

Adjective and Dependent Preposition

(c) Noun + preposition

Noun and Dependent Preposition

Noun and Dependent Preposition

3. Wrap up

So, having now seen a wide range of examples of the two types of prepositions and their sub-groups mapped out…

…it’s over to you to:

(i)  Use them as a reference when writing

(ii) Learn them to develop your spoken fluency!

If you’d like some links for online practice exercises (with answers) to help you master prepositions faster, check out this article.


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© David Rose LACS Training 2012


Filed under 4 English Language Skills

3 responses to “Prepositions: Small but Tricky Little Things…

  1. Pingback: Fixed Verb Patterns: Gerund, Infinitive or Both? | The LACS Training Blog

  2. Osama

    Thanks very much indeed David, I used to work for the British Council in Iraq and tried my best to share as much information as I could with our friends then about prepositions, I wished I’d seen your website before, it wouldn’t saved time and efforts. Shared it on my Facebook page as a link.
    Many best regards,

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