Core Grammar #5: Prepositions

Prepositions—the little linking words

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:

Problem #1: there are a lot of them

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.

Problem #2: usage is often abstract and idiomatic

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):

Problem #3: cell phones and Twitter

You probably saw that one coming. If all of your reading and writing is on Twitter, you get used to a 280 character limit; cell phones are more limited at 160. Obviously, you don't have space for the little words that do not carry heavy meaning (but only define relationships), 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.

Dealing with the Problems

  1. Actually read well-edited material such as the assignments for this course. And by "read," I do not mean the desperate last-second scan that might help you pass the daily reading quiz. I don't mean asking your roommate to explain the content either. You need to interact with the text itself.
  2. Become aware of the way your target audience uses language. If my mother was ill, I might say "she was in the hospital." Someone from England would be more likely to say his mother "was in hospital" (leaving out "the"). Is one of us wrong? No, but we are in different language groups. You are trying to learn how to fit in with the "smart club" of academic and business writers and speakers, so try to imitate their usage.
  3. When you write, read your copy aloud. If it sounds weird and awkward, chances are the little words are causing trouble. Sometimes your best repair is to simply do a new sentence—a one-word change might not be enough. The real repair for the Waldo sentence might best be: "Waldo's unfit parenting of his children was tragic."
  4. You may have to do more surgery than simply trading out words. An even better rewrite of the sentences above might be "The unfit parenting of the children by Waldo was tragic."

More information:

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, Accessed 17 July 2022.

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Revised 7/17/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: