Get Over Your Fear of Prepositions!

Whenever I ask my students what their biggest problem is in learning English, they tend to say the same thing – prepositions!! No matter what your English level, even if you’re advanced, chances are that you find prepositions difficult. The reason is that there aren’t many solid rules upon which you can learn how to use them. So how can we make this easier?

First, let’s start with a few tips on how to make learning prepositions a little easier:

  1. Never try to translate directly from your own language – Why? Because it’s probably not going to be correct! Even though a certain preposition might sound strange when translated into, for example Arabic, you have to accept that languages work differently. Don’t even think of Arabic when you learn prepositions. Start thinking only in English and accept that, yes, sometimes they sound weird!
  1. Don’t rely on rules – There are some rules that will help with basic prepositions of place and time, but when we talk about prepositional phrases, rules simply don’t apply and you need to learn them, remember them, and USE THEM. For example, ‘to get on with someone’ does not mean the same as to ‘get on with something.’ Confusing, right? To ‘get on with someone’ means to have a good relationship with them and to ‘get one with something’ means to continue doing something. This is very advanced English and is something that is hard to pick up unless you practice using these phrases in conversation. So, don’t rush out and look up the rules for every single prepositional phrase – just try to learn them, bit by bit.
  1. Read, read, and read some more – This is true for every part of English, and the students I have that read daily tend to be ahead of the other students. Don’t worry – I’m not talking about a big and difficult task like reading a novel in English. I’m talking about reading small things each day, like on social media, in magazines or on websites and blogs – like this one.

Each time you see a prepositional phrase, note it down and practice using it. If you’re not sure how to use it, simply enter it into www.dictionary.com and look at the examples.

  1. Learn prepositions as vocabulary not as grammar – This might sound strange, but when I teach prepositions as part of vocabulary and not grammar to my students, the result is always better. For example, ‘in the morning’ – don’t just learn the word ‘morning’ when studying new vocabulary. Learn that it almost always comes with ‘in the’ directly before it. Yes, they are three separate words, but don’t think of it in this way. Think of learning vocabulary as learning commonly used phrases, and try to avoid learning words in isolation (alone). After all, it’s not like we speak that way, is it? In fact, the foundations of the English language are phrases – we love them!

Now let’s look at a few rules for six basic prepositions; in, on, at, from, of and by:

In:

  • To be used for geographical locations: in Riyadh, in the classroom, in the apartment, in Takhassusi Street, in the car, in the Uber, in the world.
  • To be used in writing such as books and articles, in movies and in pictures: in the beginning of the movie, in the book, in the picture.

On:

  • To be used for things, which you can usually place your feet or hands on: the picture on the wall, on the floor, on the boat, on the chair, on the bus (since we stand up on to it, as opposed to sitting down into a car), on a plane. For television and radio: he is on TV, on the radio last night. Directions for left and right: on the left, on the right.

At:

To be used to talk about being next to or inside something but more general: at the door, at the mall (either outside or inside – not specific), at the train station, at the cinema, at the party, at work. To be used for time: at 2:30pm.

From:

  • To be used to talk about the person who gave something: It is a gift from Ahmed to Sara. For the country of nationality: She is from Saudi Arabia. From a starting location to a destination: from Riyadh Gallery Mall to Olaya Street.

Of: 

  • To be used to talk about ‘what something shows’: A photo of my brother, a picture of the Taj Mahal, a page of writing. For talking about what something belongs to: a piece of that chocolate cake, a slice of pizza, a broken piece of china from that cup.

By: 

  • To be used to talk about who made something: A photo of my brother taken BY my sister, a picture of the Taj Mahal made BY Shah Jahan, a page of writing BY Mark Twain.

These are a few basic rules to get you started, but it’s important to remember that there are exceptions to the rule when it comes to prepositions and there are a lot more examples out there that aren’t included here – that’s the challenge with prepositions. Remember – memorize and practice!

To get you started on some practice, try your hand at these exercises and see if you get some of the answers correct! Use the rules above to help you, and when you’re finished – check your answers down below. Good luck!

  1. She is holding a cup _____ coffee.
  2. The plate is ______ on the table.
  3. Amal is sitting _______ the table.
  4. The building is made ________ granite.
  5. Mohammed is lying ________ the bed.
  6. I’m reading a great book _________ Margaret Atwood.
  7. She’s _________ a small city in the north originally.
  8. I saw him ______ television last night.
  9. Angelina Jolie doesn’t appear _______ that movie.
  10. Do you want a piece ______ toast?
  11. She’s ______ the next room right now. I’ll tell her to come out.
  12. Abdul is waiting ______ the station for me.

Now, scroll down and see how you did J

  1. She is holding a cup _____ coffee. (of)
  2. The plate is ______ on the table. (on)
  3. Amal is sitting _______ the table. (at)
  4. The building is made ________ granite. (of)
  5. Mohammed is lying ________ the bed. (on)
  6. I’m reading a great book _________ Margaret Atwood. (by)
  7. She’s _________ a small city in the north originally. (from)
  8. I saw him ______ television last night. (on)
  9. Angelina Jolie doesn’t appear _______ that movie. (in)
  10. Do you want a piece ______ toast? (of)
  11. She’s ______ the next room right now. I’ll tell her to come out. (in)
  12. Abdul is waiting ______ the station for me. (at)

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