Those Pesky Prepositions… and How to Get Them in Line!

“In my time, things were more cheaper. By example, apples costed 5¢ per lb. It was the Depression, Pa was outta work, on the BS, us young bucks participating at a work camp program. The family depended of that money so much, I tell ya! But, at the end, when Gratien and me went at the army barracks to join up in ‘39, it all worked out.”*

Among the many barbarisms found in the above text, there is one that grabs the reader’s attention – incorrect prepositions. With prepositions being the bane of learners of English as a Second Language, it is the incumbent on any ESL teacher worth her salt to help her students to master them.

Alas, there are not many rules at the teacher’s disposal. What follows is an attempt to give practical tips and tricks so these pint-sized words cease being an obstacle to clear and concise communication.

Perhaps we should begin with a definition: in fact, what is a preposition? According to Words and Ideas, prepositions serve “…to relate a noun or a noun-equivalent to the rest of the sentence.”

While they are usually two-letter words, prepositions can be longer, as illustrated below:

-at         -on         -in         -with
-with      -from      -of         -to
-about    -above    -below   -under
-until      -during    -for       -without

Let’s look at some strategies we can use to marshal these words.

1. MOVEMENT versus PLACE (TO versus AT)
I frequently encounter students who say, “I go AT work every day” when they should be saying I go TO work every day.” How to correct this? Try the following: Associate ‘to’ with ‘movement,’ (there’s an O in ‘movement’ as there’s an O in ‘to’) and ‘at’ with ‘place’ (as in ‘staying in place’ or ‘stationary’ – yes, they’re full of A’s!)

2. INVERTED TRIANGLE (IN, ON, AT – prepositions of time and place)
Here are some classic mistakes: “At June, we’ll go on a summer vacation” or “I live on 5757 St. Denis Street.” NOO! It should be “IN June” and “AT 5757 St. Denis Street.” The solution to this conundrum? Learn the inverted pyramid:

As we can see in the diagram, ‘IN’ is used more frequently and in more general circumstances; the further down we go, the narrower the usages of the following two prepositions (‘ON’ and ‘AT’) become. Ideally, the best approach here for any student is to memorize the pyramid.

 Relatively speaking, we can make the same observation when ‘IN,’ ‘ON,’ and ‘AT’ are employed as prepositions of place:

The key to the correct usage of prepositions is understanding their meaning. Memorizing set expressions or sentences can help us retain such info. Here are just a few examples:

BY = manner or means
ex. by foot, by train

OF = origin or cause
ex. She died of cancer.

WITH = accompany
ex. I went with my sister to the movies.

Keep in mind that some prepositions are polysemic: for example, ‘by’ can also have the meaning of ‘in proximity to’ as in ‘Mandy’s standing by the fire exit.’

Mnemonics is a word of Greek origin which means “technic for improving the memory” (Merriam-Webster’s.) For our purposes, it will serve as a little trick to help us to remember which preposition to use.
Mnemonics can be very handy when it comes to preposition combinations. Here are just two examples:

-to be interested in: There’s an ‘in’ at the beginning of the word ‘interested,’ so there’s an ‘in’ at the end of the expression
-to depend on: Think of ‘on’ as the solid foundation on which you’ll build a house.

Mnemonics tend to be very personal: What works for one person doesn’t for another. Therefore, be creative and think up something to jog your own memory!

Finally, another strategy to mastering prepositions combinations is to keep a glossary. Better yet, why not break them down into lists? One list could contain, for example, expressions which are formulated the same way as in French; the other could consist of expressions which differ from those found in the language of Molière. 

Here are two examples:

SIMILAR                                                    DIFFERENT
To agree with (être d'accord avec)               To feel like (avoir envie de)
To be patient with (être patient avec)           To complain about (se plaindre de)

Whenever you consult these lists to look up an expression, put a dot next to it. Once an idiom has accumulated three dots, you should consider the expression to be important enough to commit it to memory. (Suggestion: Try writing it out several times.)

Prepositions play a vital role in linking nouns with other elements of grammar. (Not examined here are phrasal verbs (ex. to get on, to get along with) -- this is a vast subject unto itself and deserves its own blog!)

To conclude, I’d like to reassure those who find prepositions to be a perpetual stumbling block to fluent speech: you learn by making mistakes! With time, practise, and determination, you can eradicate these errors. It is my sincere hope that the strategies provided here will you help you reach that goal.

GRELLET, Françoise (2015) Initiation au thème anglais. France: Hachette. 224.
GUTH, Hans P. (1959) Words and Ideas. A Handbook for College Writing. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc. xxviii + 585. (Consulted 2020/08/04)
MILLARD, C.M. (1988) A Biography of the English Language. US: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. xxii + 386.

* “In my youth, things were cheaper. For example, apples cost 5¢ a lb.It was the Depression, and Pa was out of work and on social assistance. We young bucks participated in a work camp program. The family depended on that money so much, I’m telling you! But, in the end, when Gratien and I went to the army barracks to join up in ‘39, it all worked out.”

Brenda Prai
ESL teacher

[email protected]