Prepositions

How can we use these little words correctly?

Prepositions are used in many different ways in English – perhaps that’s why a lot of people have problems with them.

First, they are used with time words:

  • on Monday
  • in the 20th century
  • at night

 

Prepositions

 

Prepositions of Time

In, at, on and no preposition with time words:

Prepositions of time – here’s a list of the time words that need ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘at’ and some that don’t need any preposition. Be careful – many students of English use ‘on’ with months (it should be ‘in’), or put a preposition before ‘next’ when we don’t need one.

at

  • times: at 8pm, at midnight, at 6:30
  • holiday periods: at Christmas, at Easter
  • at night
  • at the weekend
  • at lunchtime, at dinnertime, at breakfast time

on

  • days: on Monday, on my birthday, on Christmas Day
  • days + morning / afternoon / evening / night: on Tuesday morning
  • dates: on the 20th of June

in

  • years: in 1992, in 2006
  • months: in December, in June
  • decades: in the sixties, in the 1790s
  • centuries: in the 19th century
  • seasons: in winter, in summer
  • in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening

no prep

  • next week, year, month etc
  • last night, year etc
  • this morning, month etc
  • every day, night, years etc
  • today, tomorrow, yesterday

Second, they are used to show where something or someone is:

  • The plate is on the table.
  • Julie is in the garden.
  • The picture is on the wall.

Prepositions of Place

Prepositions of place can be difficult – here’s some help about using ‘at’, ‘in’ and ‘on’ when you’re talking about where things are.

Basics:

If something is contained inside a box or a wide flat area, we use ‘in’:

in the newspaper          in a house
in a cup                    in a drawer
in a bottle                 in a bag
in bed                       in a car
in London                  in England
in a book                   in a pub
in a field                    in the sea
in my stomach           in a river

If something is on a line or a horizontal or vertical surface, we use ‘on’:

on the table                     on the wall
on the floor               on the window
on my face                on a plate
on the page               on the sofa
on a chair                  on a bag
on the river               on a t-shirt
on the ceiling            on a bottle
on a bike                  on his foot

If something is at a point, (it could be a building) we use ‘at’:

at the airport                         at the door
at the table                    at the bus stop
at the cinema                 at the top
at the bottom                 at the pub
at the traffic lights          at the front
at the back                    at school
at university                  at the window
at the hospital                      at the piano

Here are some more common ones that don’t really fit:

  • on TV
  • on the bus
  • on a train
  • on a plane
  • on the radio
  • at home
  • at work

 

Third, they are used after some adjectives:

  • She is good at tennis.
  • Scotland is famous for whisky
  • I’m worried about my new job.

 

Adjectives and Prepositions

Some adjectives need a preposition before their object. There doesn’t seem to be a logical rule, I’m afraid! We just need to learn them.
Here are some of the most common ones:

  • famous for

France is famous for its food.

  • proud of

He is very proud of his new car.

  • interested in

Julie is very interested in sport.

  • pleased with

John is very pleased with his new suit.

  • bad at

     

They are very bad at maths.

  • good at

     

Einstein was very good at physics.

  • married to

My mother has been married to my father for 20 years.

 

  • excited about

I’m very excited about my holiday.

  • different from / to

Coffee is different from tea.

  • afraid of

I’m afraid of spiders.

 

Fourth, they are used after some verbs:

  • I’m listening to music.
  • She is waiting for her friend.
  • He borrows money from his sister.

Verbs and Prepositions

Some verbs need a preposition before an object or another verb. The preposition is only grammatical, so it doesn’t change the meaning of the verb.
Here are some of the most common ones:

  • arrive at / in somewhere

     

We arrived at the airport.
We arrived in London.

  • belong to somebody

     

This book belongs to me.

  • borrow something from somebody

I borrowed a book from my classmate.

  • concentrate on something / doing something 

I concentrated on studying at the weekend.

  • depend on something / somebody

     

It depends on the weather.

  • explain something to somebody 

The teacher explained the exercise to the students.

  • listen to something / somebody

     

I listened to music.

  • pay somebody for something

     

I paid the waiter for the coffee.

  • wait for somebody / something

     

Wait for me!

  • worry about somebody / something

     

Don’t worry about a thing!

Fifth, they are used after some nouns:

  • She has trouble with remembering new vocabulary.
  • Finally, they are used in certain phrases:
  • The bus arrived in the end.
  • She arrived just in time for the film.

Finally, they are used in certain phrases:

  • The bus arrived in the end.
  • She arrived just in time for the film.

Preposition Collocations 1

 

Prepositions can be tricky. One problem is that there is often no logic at all! We use them in many phrases and expressions and unfortunately, we just need to learn these by heart. There aren’t really any rules.

(I’ve called these ‘preposition collocations’ but sometimes people call them ‘prepositional phrases’ or ‘preposition expressions’.)

1: At last = finally

After a long journey, at last we arrived at our hotel.
At last! I thought you’d never get here!

2: On foot = walking (NOT by foot)

I usually go to work on foot.
Did you come by car or on foot?

3: By mistake = not meaning to

I dropped the glass by mistake. I’m really sorry.
She gave him the wrong book by mistake.

4: In advance = beforehand

We need to book the tickets for the cinema in advance, or we won’t get a good seat.
She always buys her food for Christmas well in advance.

5: Out of reach = too high to touch (literally or metaphorically)

She tried to grab the kite as it flew away but it was already out of reach.
That job is out of reach. I don’t have the right qualifications for it.

6: For instance = here is an example

John reads a lot. For instance, yesterday he read two books.
You should eat more vegetables. Why don’t you have a salad at lunchtime, for instance?

7: In danger = in a dangerous situation

When the car started rolling we realised that we were in danger. Luckily we managed to stop.
The dog fell into the river and was in danger for several minutes.

8: Without fail = always / definitely

She visits her mother every week without fail.
I study for twenty minutes a day without fail.

9: By chance = without planning

I saw Julie at the station by chance.
She found the perfect book by chance in a second hand bookshop.

10: On purpose = intending to do something

She left without paying on purpose! It wasn’t a mistake.
Did you take my bag on purpose? Why would you do that?

11: For a change = to do something different

Let’s have Italian food for a change. We always eat British food.
I don’t want to go to the cinema again. I want to go to the park for a change.

12: On time (for) = at the time that was arranged

She was on time for the meeting. It started at nine and she arrived at nine.
Why are you never on time? I’m so fed up with waiting for you.

13: To my surprise = I was surprised

I opened the door, and to my surprise, it was Lucy! I’d thought she was in Paris.

To his surprise, the baby stopped crying and smiled at him.

14: At once = immediately

You must do it at once! Don’t wait even one minute.
She cleaned up at once when she realised that her mother was coming to visit.

15: In common (with) = something that’s shared or the same

People from different countries have a lot in common. We all want to have good lives.
What does a cat have in common with a mouse? Well, they are both mammals.

Would you like more practice? Get a new grammar lesson every week, a new listening lesson every week and more, Come to our academies!

 

 


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