Prepositions are some of the most commonly-used words in English. They are short, apparently simple words which tell us something about position either in space or in time. The name “preposition” is a good clue”. They tell us about position. “Pre-” means “before”.

In English, prepositions always come before the noun. In some languages, such as Hindu, Urdu, Japanese and Korean, the same sort of words, the functional words that tell us about position in time or space, come after the noun.

Where do prepositions go?

Prepositions always come before a noun, or another word, such as the gerund (-ing) form of a verb, acting as a noun. Some of the most common prepositions are: of, in, to, for, with, on, at, from, by and about.

Prepositions also feature for other grammatical reasons. A preposition can be joined with a verb to make a phrasal verb, also known as a multi-word verb. A phrasal verb is a verb made up of a verb plus another one or two words, usually prepositions.

Phrasal verbs are particularly difficult as they always have at least two meanings, and often more. Changing the prepositions changes the meanings.

Never, never, never ! It’s ok to…

Years ago, English teachers used to say that it was a terrible thing to end a sentence with a preposition, presumably because a preposition should always come before a noun or noun phrase. That would sometimes lead to very awkward sentences because people would go to great lengths in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

These days we are generally more relaxed about this rule. We say things such as “Emma is the friend who I went to Japan with” rather than “Emma is the friend with whom I went to Japan”. While the second sentence is better in the eyes of a very old-fashioned English grammarian, it sounds inappropriately formal and quite “clunky”.

Another good example is “This is a situation I won’t put up with”. This sounds a lot better and much more natural than “This is a situation up with which I will not put”.

What is a dependent preposition?

Some verbs, adjectives and nouns have particular prepositions that are used after them and before a noun. These are called dependent prepositions. The name “dependent preposition” is a little confusing as it is really the verb or adjective that depends on the preposition rather than the other way round as the name “dependent preposition” suggests. Dependent prepositions are really difficult to learn because there often doesn’t seem to be any clear, logical reason why we use one preposition rather than another with a particular verb or adjective when we put them together. 

Some common dependent prepositions are: believe in, worry about, depend on (verbs), good at, afraid of, keen on (adjectives), increase in, difference between, similarity to (nouns)

Some dependent prepositions are easier to remember than others, for example, “I’m interested in grammar.” Having an interest “in” something seems logical and also the word “interested” begins with “in”. However, we say “I am fascinated by grammar” or “I am fascinated with grammar”, even though “fascinated” means the same as “very interested”.

With many dependent prepositions there is no obvious logic to why we use one preposition rather than another. In a sentence such as “I apologised to my sister for being late”, which we could also say as “I apologised for being late to my sister, ”the “apologised to” seems logical. because the apology is something we are giving to somebody. However, there is no clear and obvious reason why we apologise “for” something. 

How can we remember prepositions?

Sometimes we can invent memory aids to help us remember prepositions but it might be better to focus on learning them as chunks of language, that is, learn the two words together. This is also the case with phrasal verbs. Simple gap-fill practice exercises are good for learning dependent prepositions and phrasal verbs, learning from our mistakes.

The more that you expose yourself to English through talking, reading and watching movies and video, the more you will start to be aware of particular dependent prepositions.

You will start to recognise when something you say or write “sounds wrong” because you have used the wrong preposition and you will be able to self-correct, in a similar way to which you recognise when a word is spelled incorrectly. 

Are there lots of prepositions to learn?

The good news is that there are not many prepositions and there are no new prepositions being invented, as is the case with nouns and verbs for example. Also, with prepositions, there is virtually no difference between American and British English. About the only example of an exception that I can think of is with the adjective “excited”. British English-speakers say “I’m excited about my holiday ” while Americans say “I’m excited for my holiday”. I hope this blog has helped you. I’m excited about my next blog.

Peter Ward