Prepositions are one of the hardest things to learn in English. Even advanced English learners find prepositions difficult! One preposition in your own language might have a different translation in English depending on the context. For example, if you look up the word on in the dictionary you will be bombarded with many different definitions and uses, over 50 in fact!
Prepositions are sometimes referred to as ‘function words’ as opposed to nouns and verbs which are ‘content words’. Does this mean that prepositions are not as significant as verbs? Or that they do not provide the listener or reader with important information?
> My mother is in Queen Mary Hospital
> My mother is at Queen Mary Hospital
In this case, it is the choice of preposition which tells the listener or reader if the mother is a patient at the hospital or just visiting.
> I can meet you at 5 o’clock
> I can meet you after 5 o’clock
> I can meet you before 5 o’clock
This shows how a preposition can completely alter the meaning of the sentence, proving that these little words must not be overlooked.
Most English learners have no problem directly translating prepositions from their native language into English, but this is where problems arise, as one preposition may correspond to several different prepositions in English.
In English, to talk about something happening at a certain time we can say
> I got married at noon
> I got married in the morning
> I got married on Saturday
> I got married in March
> I got married in 2005
> I got married at Easter
Sure, we can give students rules to apply, such as; use on with days of the week; in for months and years; at for specific times and holidays, but as native English speakers we do not grow up learning these rules, or even thinking about what preposition to use. Ask an English speaking child, “Where is your mother?” They will know to say at home instead of in home or on home. This is not instinctive; it has been acquired through hearing and mimicking, which is not the same way that students learn the language. Children learn languages in chunks and phrases so English learners should do the same.
There is no denying that rules can help learners; however these rules for prepositions of direction, place, position and time can work only for these instances. How does a learner know to use dream of, depend on or belong to? What are the rules for this?
The cold hard truth, which no learner wants to hear, is that there are none. In order to learn these types of preposition, learners must learn the language like children: in chunks.
~send something to someone
~ afraid of (+ noun/-ing)
~depends on (+ noun/-ing)
~in the morning/afternoon/evening
The importance of learning fixed expressions and collocation (words that go together) is evident when students want to take proficiency exams, in particular TOEIC or Cambridge ESOL Examinations.
In this example knowing the dependent preposition is the only way to answer the question.
In the first example the preposition from collocates only with the verb suffer and in example two we use on with the adjective keen.
~ suffer from (+ noun/-ing)
~ keen on (+ noun/-ing)
Learning prepositions as part of phrases and fixed expressions will help to improve a student’s proficiency and therefore lead to a better score in English exams.
So to finish up with some words of wisdom: learners should not directly translate prepositions from their first language, but learn prepositions in conjunction with the surrounding words, forming set expressions. Learning prepositions in isolation is a daunting task, and more often than not there are exceptions to the rules. Learning in phrases, however, means learners will make fewer errors. Good luck!
Blog written by Joanna Hewson-Williams from the Gold Coast campus.
If you wish to learn more English tips, read some of our other articles written by our Academic Team: