Article type icon

The Preposition Proposition

Perfect your knowledge of prepositions

A preposition is a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relationship to another word or element in a clause, e.g., "the man on the street," "she arrived after the bell." Sounds easy, right?

Think again! It's amazing how a small preposition can make a big difference in your writing. For instance, talking at someone is totally different from speaking to a person. The former has a negative connotation, to scold the listener or to just talk on and on, refusing to let the other person participate in the conversation.

English as a second language (ESL) writers are endlessly frustrated by these small but significant words, and it's no wonder—there are more prepositions in English than in any other language!

Common preposition problems

Are by foot and on foot interchangeable? Does one go on a walk or for a walk? Grammarians have bantered issues like these back and forth for decades. We prefer on foot, but by foot is not really wrong. Editors normally accept the phrase "going on a walk" when referring to an organized activity (I'm going on the Cancer Society's Walk for the Cure, for example), but going for a walk is acceptable when referring to a leisurely stroll.

Sometimes these subtleties in prepositions reveal a non-native English author; if you say that you put the book at, rather than on, the table, your meaning would most likely be understood, but your lack of familiarity with the English language would be apparent.

Incorrect use of prepositions is becoming far too common

Even though incorrectly used, slang is commonly used because proper English may seem too formal and may not always be recognized as being correct. "To whom does this coat belong?" might be viewed as snobbish to a person who would normally say, "Who does this coat belong to?" Therefore, it is essential to consider your target audience. While ending a sentence with a preposition usage may be common, a scholarly term paper still requires precise grammar.

Don't separate a preposition from its phrase

According to many, one of the cardinal sins of grammar is ending a sentence with a preposition. In a scene in D.C. Cab, Mr. T, who portrays a taxi driver, asks his fare, "Where are you going to?" The man, condescendingly, reminds him of the rule, which, as one can imagine, causes Mr. T to get rather angry. Although ending a sentence with a preposition is not technically incorrect, the rule is so widely touted that it is best to avoid doing so in all formal writing. In our example, then, Mr. T should have asked, "To where are you going?"

"That don't sound right." Many people are not even aware that it should be "That doesn't sound right." An unfamiliar ring, for them, might actually indicate proper grammar. However, "not sounding right" does not always signify appropriate usage. Ironically, some people try to sound highly educated by using "I" as part of a multiple object of a preposition. Consider the statement: "Give the pens to the teacher or I." Since I is the object of a preposition (objective case), the correct form is "to the teacher or me."

Do you have trouble remembering when to use I as opposed to me? Simply say it out loud, eliminating the first object. You would never say, "Give the pens to I."

Some preposition tips

  • One of the most important keys to good writing, as well as speaking, is to avoid wordiness and duplication. The removal of even a couple of small words can improve the flow of a sentence.
  • You may go home or be at home, but you must go to the house or be at the house. You may not go house or be at house.
  • Till and until are interchangeable synonyms. However, til is an incorrect attempt at an abbreviation.
  • By and past are pretty much the same when used to describe walking by or past an object. However, if you say you live by the bridge that means near it and not that you necessarily pass it to get home.

There is not always a simple rule to follow when using prepositions, and if there is, you may count on exceptions. In many cases, the only way to learn them is to memorize the prepositions that go with certain verbs.

  • You recover from a disease, but are done with the report and hope for a resolution to the problem.
  • You are acquainted with the Turabian Citation Style, but you are aware of other options.
  • You participate in a seminar and subscribe to a newsletter.
  • You work at night, noon, and midnight, but in the morning, afternoon, or evening.
  • The meeting is on Monday or July 13th, yet in July or the summer.
  • There is pepper in the sauce, but a recipe instructs you to put pepper into the mixture. Of course, you might also say to add pepper to the sauce, but the reverse of these (put to or add into would be confusing and incorrect).

Don't be fooled by prepositions that seem to be similar

Some other common, yet often confusing, prepositions, such as by and with, seem to mean the same thing, but do not. (The chemical was tested by the scientist with litmus paper.) By tells who caused the action, and with tells which instrument was used. Similarly, since starts from a particular time, and for refers to duration. (The publisher had the book for two weeks—since last month.)

Over the years, languages inevitably change. Upon was once used when referring to moving objects, and on was used when referring to stationary things. (He leaped upon the dragon and fell on the floor.) In meant at the end of a stretch of time, while within would be during that period. (You must pay your fee in one week, or you must pay it within one week.) However, these prepositions are now generally accepted as being interchangeable.

For more help with problematic prepositions, submit your document for an English grammar check and one of our editors will provide a thorough edit and proofread.

Make Every Word Count with Professional Editing

Try Our ESL Academic Editing Service, or Get a Free Sample