I wrote this article in response to a request by a good friend, Ian Israel, whom I call Liit. This may not be complete because the rules surrounding the uses of prepositions is a little bit lengthy, but I included here some of what I think are the most confused rules. I also included links of useful lists and a video of “Ask the Editor” from Merriam-Webster to talk about whether or not it is correct to end a sentence with a preposition. I hope you find this helpful, Liit.
Preposition has always been the trickiest part of grammar, at least personally. Determining which of the many prepositions to use is quite confusing, especially if you are not a native speaker of the English language. When I started studying and teaching grammar six or five years ago, I had the habit of saying I am “good in something” or “good on doing something,” until I came across the preposition section, which is about at least six or seven chapters of the book we were using. Now, what makes prepositions tricky?
Let us take a look at prepositions and prepositional phrases.
A preposition is a word that describes a relationship between other words in a sentence. In itself, a preposition—like in or after—is rather meaningless and hard to define in mere words. For instance, when you do try to define a preposition like in or between or on, you invariably use your hands or draw a picture to show how something is situated in relationship to something else. Prepositions are nearly always combined with other words in structures called prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases can be made up of a million different words, but they tend to be built the same—a preposition followed by a determiner and an adjective or two, followed by a pronoun or noun (called the object of the preposition). This whole phrase, in turn, takes on a modifying role, acting as an adjective or an adverb, locating something in time and space, modifying a noun, or telling when or where or under what conditions something happened.
Is it any wonder that prepositions create such troubles for students for whom English is a second language? We say we are at the hospital to visit a friend who is in the hospital. We lie in bed but on the couch. We watch a film at the theater but on television. For native speakers, these little words present little difficulty, but try to learn another language, any other language, and you will quickly discover that prepositions are troublesome wherever you live and learn. This page contains some interesting (sometimes troublesome) prepositions with brief usage notes. To address all the potential difficulties with prepositions in idiomatic usage would require volumes, and the only way English language learners can begin to master the intricacies of preposition usage is through practice and paying close attention to speech and the written word. Keeping a good dictionary close at hand (to hand?) is an important first step.
Prepositions of Time: at, on, and in
We use at to designate specific times.
Our lunch break is at 12:00 noon.
My class starts at seven thirty in the morning.
We use on to designate days and dates.
My rest days are on Saturdays and Sundays.
I was born on July 23.
We use in for nonspecific times during a day, a month, a season, or a year.
I don’t like getting up early in the morning.
Going to the beach is a hype in the summer.
I was born in 1990.
My birthday is in July.
Prepositions of Place: at, on, and in
We use at for specific addresses.
Kaiih lives at 109 Lorega-San Miguel Street, Cebu City.
We use on to designate names of streets, avenues, etc.
Kaiih lives on Lorega-San Miguel Street.
There’s a good cookie shop on Third Avenue.
And we use in for the names of land-areas (towns, counties, states, countries, and continents).
He lives in Cebu City.
Cebu City is in the Philippines.
The Philippines is in Asia.
For a brief discussion of prepositions of spatial relationship, click here.
Prepositions of Movement
We use to in order to express movement toward a place.
Kaiih was walking to work when I met him.
They went to the party they were not invited to.
Toward and towards are also helpful prepositions to express movement. These are simply variant spellings of the same word; use whichever sounds better to you. But note that the former is preferred in American English, and the latter in British usage. The same preference applies to related words forward, upward, backward, etc.
The ship moved toward the open sea.
The men marched towards their doom.
With the words home, downtown, uptown, inside, outside, downstairs, upstairs, we use no preposition.
I went upstairs after dinner.
She went home.
The kids all went outside.
Prepositions of Extended Time: for and since
We use for when we measure time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years). Generally, for is used to indicate how long an action has/had happened or has/had been happening.
I have been waiting for three hours.
The rained poured for an hour before it stopped.
She had been in the hospital for three weeks before the doctors dismissed her.
We use since with a specific date or time in the past to indicate when the action started.
She has been in the hospital since last week.
I’ve been writing poetry since I was nine years old.
I have been waiting for you since three o’clock.
In everyday speech, we fall into some bad habits, using prepositions where they are not necessary. It would be a good idea to eliminate these words altogether, but we must be especially careful not to use them in formal, academic prose.
She met up with her best friend whom she hadn’t seen for three years..
The book fell off of the desk.
He threw my things out of the window.
She wouldn’t let the dog inside of the house. [or use “in”]
Where did he go to?
Put the picture in back of the TV. [use “behind” instead]
All of the houses were destroyed in the flood.
[Delete of whenever possible (all the houses). The only common exceptions occur when all of precedes a nonpossessive pronoun (all of us) and when it precedes a genitive (all of North Carolina’s players).]
Prepositions and Collocations
Prepositions are sometimes so firmly wedded to other words that they have practically become one word. (In fact, in other languages, such as German, they would have become one word.) This occurs in three categories: nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
NOUNS and PREPOSITIONS
ADJECTIVES and PREPOSITIONS
VERBS and PREPOSITIONS
look forward to
Ending a Sentence with a Preposition
Many people argue that it is grammatically wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, but based on shaky historical precedent, the rule itself is a latecomer to the rules of writing. To answer this issue, I will leave Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster to answer this that has been the topic of debate among many scholars.