When a person begins learning English (either as an infant or as a second-language speaker), the names (nouns) come first: ball, milk, outside. Then come the big concrete verbs: throw ball, drink milk, go outside. After that, we learn something about sentence structure: I throw the ball. Babies drink milk. Do you want to go outside?
The little function words are the last ones we learn, and they are the most difficult because they are often abstract and idiomatic. (And misuse of the little words is what marks a person as a foreigner to a language.) Prepositions are in this class of small function words:
Preposition difficulties are the reason sentences like these seem off-balance and awkward, even though we can figure out what they mean:
This website claims that English has over 150 prepositions and something like 70 are the "common ones." You would probably go insane if you were required to memorize 70 little words and their usage.
The root meaning often relates to location (thus, the "position" part of the name), as shown by this cute website showing a puppy in different places. One textbook shows a huge block of cheese and mice in different prepositional relations to it (inside, beside, on, under, and so forth).
The problem, though, is that some prepositional relationships are difficult to visualize, so the "location" idea becomes very unhelpful: The children climbed the mountain without fear. That's an abstract concept, not something you can take a photo of.
Preposition usage is often idiomatic (just the way we do it, but it's difficult to explain logically). Fouling up an idiomatic usage is not always fatal to your meaning, but it does brand you as an outsider to the language group you are trying to speak to. Here are several possibilities to show what I mean (the red ones don't work):
You probably saw that one coming. If all of your reading and writing is on Twitter, you get used to a 140 character limit; cell phones are more generous at 160. Obviously, the little words that do not carry heavy meaning (but only define relationships) do not have any space, and text/Twitter is incredibly concrete, so abstract relationships just do not fit there. Cell phone style has been leaking into school writing for some time. Here is a quotation¹ from a school paper submitted by a Scottish girl:
My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.
Obviously, if you are immersed in that sort of writing, the little words get lost.
¹ Translation (as if you needed it!): "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend, and their three cute kids in person (face to face). I love New York. It's a great place."
This quotation is from: "Is txt Ruining the English Language?" Have Your Say. BBC News, 6 Mar. 2003. Web. 14 June 2012.
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Revised 8/10/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.