Prepositions, though among the smallest and seemingly most insignificant words within English sentences, are nevertheless the words that cause the most problems for those trying to write well. While it is true that most readers will be able to understand what they are reading despite wrong usage of prepositions, there are many situations in which the wrong preposition will not only negatively affect the meaning of the sentences and/or paragraphs that a writer is trying to express, but it will also negatively affect the overall flow and style of the writing. This is especially important for those of you who are writing for tests. You might lose points not only for language usage, but also for overall impression if the message is not delivered clearly.
John took the test for Mike. John took the test to Mike.
John took the test with Mike. John took the test at Mike’s.
John took the test through Mike. John took the test despite Mike’s objections.
Each of these sentences is grammatically correct. However, each sentence means something different, including a couple that imply other information that is not written in the sentence itself. The first two sentences, those using the prepositions to and for, mean, respectively, that John took Mike’s place at the test center, and John carried or delivered the test to where Mike was.
The above also suggests that the most difficult aspect of learning to use prepositions correctly is knowing the differences between certain prepositions and which one to use in which context. Examples of confusing prepositions might be to vs. for, above vs. over, despite vs. in spite of, for vs. since, between vs. among and many others.
Here is a list of the prepositions you should get to know. There are others that should be self-explanatory in the context they are written in.
|against||ahead of||all over||along||alongside||amid(st)||among|
|around||as||as of /to/with||as ____ as||aside||at||away from|
|close by||close to||concerning||despite||down||due to||during|
|in front of||in place of||in spite of||in view of||including||inside||instead of|
|of||off||on||on top of||onto||opposite||other than|
Each of these prepositions can be looked up in the dictionary for meaning and usage. We will focus here on those prepositions that are often misused, especially in relation to other prepositions. Click on the preposition sets below to jump ahead to the explanation on them.
|in/on/at (time)||in/on/at (place)||between/among||like/as|
|past/beyond||despite/in spite of|
These three prepositions are among the most commonly used in English. The problem that they pose is that they have multiple uses. Let’s look at how they are used to express time with past, present, and future meanings:
in – use this preposition with long, but specific periods of time. For example: months (in August, in May), years ( in 1994, in 2010), decades (in the 70s, in the roarin’ 20s), centuries (in the 21st century, in the latter half of the 19th century), seasons (in summer, in the winter of 2013), ages (in his 30s, in her late teens, in my (whole) life), periods of life (in high school –meaning during that period of time in my life).
NB: We sometimes use the preposition of in these examples. The difference between in and of is that in specifies long period, while of specifies an event or situation belonging to a period. This means that of looks at the whole period and finds one element within it to highlight. In tells us that something happened sometime inside that period; that time would be specified, if necessary, by more information added to the phrase.
Eg.: I had the best time of my life during that trip to India.—focus is on the best time (from all times in my life)
That trip to India was the best experience I’ve had in my whole life.—focus is on a time in my life.
In my 30s, I used to study the ideas of the 1950s.— in my 30s (30-39 years old); of the 1950s ( ideas belonging to that decade)
on – use this preposition with specific days and dates, and with functional long periods of time, or specific functional days. For example: days (on Monday, on New Year’s Eve), dates (on the 15th, on March 23rd), functional long times (periods of time that have a specific function, such as: on vacation, on summer holiday, on Christmas break, on sabbatical), functional days (on his wedding day, on graduation day).
NB: In the case of functional long periods remember that you can always use the preposition during if you are unsure. During/On my summer vacation, I hope to get my driver’s license.
- at – use this preposition for specific times (clock time). For example: at 5 pm, at midnight, at dawn.
Special notes on in/on/at (time)
- in the morning
- in the afternoon
- in the evening
- at night
- in five minutes, in five days, in five years, etc. – always about the future only. For past, use the time period with ago (five minutes ago, five weeks ago).
- For general use with pronoun that, follow the same rules as the general ones above: in that year, on that day, at that time. However, for more abstract reference with those, use only in (in those years, in those days, in those hours).
- At first I thought we wouldn’t be able to do it. – means first, initially, before we knew differently.
- In the beginning, it seemed impossible. – suggests the starting point of a process, a specific time before something occurred. At the beginning is ususlly followed by of + the period or action. (In the beginning, no-one understood; eventually though, it became clear.; At the beginning of the movie, the main character dies.)
- At the end – finishing point; in the end – finally
The same prepositions discussed above also function as indicators of place. While some uses are self-explanatory (in the box, on the table), others need a little more discussion so that they may be used correctly, without confusion.
In – use this preposition to describe the location of something inside an area that has a border or limit, such as a city (in Toronto, in Tokyo), a country (in the US, in India), a designation (in the West, in southeast Asia), a terrain (in the desert, in the jungle); or inside any enclosed space (in the building, in my office, in the car, in your purse); a relational location (in front (of), in the middle, in back (of).
Oh, no. I left my wallet in the car. People in the East eat less junk food than those in the West.
I lived in Istanbul for a year. On hot days, stay as much as possible in the shade.
On – use this preposition to describe the location of something that is on a surface. More specifically, use it when that surface is large enough to move on (e.g., walk, swim, etc.). For example, a street (on the street, on Wilson Avenue, on the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue); a geographical feature (on the mountain, on the ocean); a man-made physical feature (on the balcony, on the platform).
Keep in mind that some enclosed spaces will use the preposition on. These are usually spaces that have a surface within them on which a person or thing can move (i.e., walk). In these cases, you might need to use on; for example on the train/plane/bus; on the second floor (of a building).
I met a man on the train who told me that he had just returned from living in a hut on top of a mountain.
It was too cold to wait for the train on the platform, so we all waited inside the station.
At – use this preposition to describe the general vicinity of a specific point. For example, location (at the top, at the bottom, at the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue, at the front*); functional place (at the office*, at home, at school); specific point (at the door, at the entrance, at the bus stop); time and place combination (at the premiere, at the opening, at the meeting**)
*Now, you might be wondering what is the difference between:
I met Tom at his office last night.
I met Tom in his office last night.
In his office suggests, literally, inside the room that is his office. At his office suggests, generally, his place of work. Likewise, on the corner of… and at the corner of… have different nuances. Something that stands in a particular place, such as a building, is on the corner. If we speak about the general area of this corner, then we say at the corner.
Drive on the street; protest in the streets (inside this area)
I’ll meet you at the corner of 1st and Main Streets.
I’ll be standing on the south-east corner of 1st and Main Streets.
** This time and place combination usually means an event that has both a specific time and a specific place. A movie premiere is taking place Friday night at 9 pm, at the Carlton Theater. I will meet my friend Belinda there. We confirm the date, and I say “See you at the premiere.” I could say “See you on Friday,” or “See you at the theater,” (general area of), or “See you in the theater,” (inside).
Use between when talking about two things, people, places, etc. It can be used to describe location (between the buildings, between Lisa and Jacky); alliance (between you and me, between us), events in a time sequence/range (between the first and second acts, sometime between May and June = beginning of May to end of June); situation(s) (between losing my keys and falling on the ice…)
The store is on Main street, somewhere between 1st and 2nd Avenues.
Between the two of us, we should be able to come up with $1000.
Between graduating high school and staring university, Cody worked for his uncle.
What a horrible day; between fighting with my girlfriend and finding out I wasn’t accepted to that program, things couldn’t be worse.
Use among in the same way as between, though when referring to more than two things, people, etc.
Mars is often the most visible planet among the stars.
A dispute broke out among the participants.
There was not even one suitable candidate among all the applicants.
These two words often give students many problems when trying to compare something to something else for the purpose of analogy. The first thing that must be remembered in this case is that like is a preposition while as is not. As, when used to compare things, is an adverb clause marker, meaning that it must be followed by a subject and verb.
The setting sun was like a golden flame in the sky. – like is followed by a noun (flame); comparing noun to noun—sun to flame
The setting sun glowed as a golden ember burns. – as is followed by a subject (ember) and verb (burns)—comparing verb to verb (glowed to burns)
Keith is just like his father.
Keith went to university, just as his father had.
As can be used as a preposition to mean in the position of:
I work as a pilot.
As can also be combined with other prepositions to have other functions (as in, as for, as to: R as in Richard; as for the other matter, we can look into that later; as to the question of who is at fault, we will have to investigate that further)
Like and such as can both be used as prepositions to introduce an example:
I eat many exotic fruits, like dragon fruit, star fruit, and others. I also like domestic fruits, such as apples and melons.
These two prepositions are likely the most often confused pair in the list. The differences between them are very particular, and mostly have to do with what is around them more than with the two prepositions themselves.
To – Firstly, when followed by a base verb, to is actually not a preposition, but a particle, working with the base verb to create the infinitive verb (to do, to play, to be, etc.). As such, it should not be confused with the preposition for, as the two serve very different functions. However, these confusions do occur, especially with cases of adverbial complements in clauses where the complement serves to provide a reason or purpose for the action, and where to can appear as a preposition and/or as part of an infinitive.
Angela went to the store, to buy milk for breakfast. – this sentence contains three complements:
to the store – in this case, to is used as a preposition indicating direction, or destination (where?).
to buy milk – in this case, to is part of the infinitive verb, to buy, indicating the reason, or purpose, of the trip to the store (why?).
for breakfast – whereas milk is an object to the verb buy (buy what? milk), for is used as a complement, i.e., to indicate the purpose of the verb buy.
So, when describing the purpose of an action, use to with a verb, and for with a noun or noun phrase.
In other cases, we need to look at the function of the preposition:
To: use this preposition to show the direction of an action, or the target of a movement or transfer.
Please submit these forms to the receptionist at the Registrar’s office.
The package was delivered to the customer’s house last week.
The store moved to a new location. Here is a map with directions to the new location, as well as a phone number to reach them if you get lost.
For: use this preposition to point out the recipient of an action, or the beneficiary of an action (the person, thing, etc. that receives the benefit of the action).
This package arrived for you this morning. John signed for it.
The snowstorm was too severe to drive through, so the company booked rooms for its staff at the nearby motel.
There are certain verbs that can be followed by either the infinitive to or the preposition for. In both cases the sentence might be grammatically correct, yet the meaning would be different:
Tara, can you please ask Tom to help?—Whom Tom will help is unclear.
Tara, can you please ask Tom for help?—Tom will help Tara.
I’ll try to come to your party. Maybe I’ll ask Frank to give me a ride.—need to include me in this sentence to make the target of the request clear.
I’ll try to come to your party. Maybe I’ll ask Frank for a ride.—with for, the recipient of the request is already understood as being the person doing the asking.
With ask + to verb, the person being asked might do the action. With ask + for, the person asking will receive the action.
To me or for me? When we give an opinion about something, we use to me. When we speak about a task, we usually say for me when describing our ability.
To me, English is very difficult—this is my opinion, though I haven’t tried to learn English yet.
With opinion, we also often use the term seems, i.e., it seems difficult to me.
Learning English is difficult for me.
These two prepositions are usually confused when it comes to using them with particular verbs, such as think, talk, speak, hear, know, etc. In each of these cases, what follows the preposition is the object of the preposition, or, in other words, what the verb relates to or is concerned with.The difference between these two prepositions is more a matter of nuance than a concrete difference.
I told my boss about you, and he wants to meet you next week. He seemed impressed; I spoke very highly of you and your talents.
Tell about: what follows about is the direct topic of conversation.
Speak (highly/well) of: discuss something (in this case you) as an entity (like a thin, more than an actual person)
I will think about your offer and get back to you.
When it’s really cold outside, I like to think of a tropical island, with soft sand and warm waters.
Think about: consider, deliberate on, take all factors concerning the topic into account.
Think of: imagine; hold as a complete image in one’s mind.
Did you hear about the accident?
I’d never even heard of Paella until I went to Spain.
Hear about: hear information concerning a specific event, person, place, etc.
Hear of: have prior contact or experience with the thing, person, etc.
These two prepositions essentially serve the same function, which is to indicate a limit to an action or situation. What differentiates them is the direction of time from which we approach them. By, for example, asks us to look to at the end point of time or action and then look back to what preceded it. Until, on the other hand, asks us to look at the starting point and aim toward the end, and take in the whole action or situation.By the time he finished his test, all the other students had already submitted theirs and left.
He had until 3 pm to finish his test, but he couldn’t solve all the problems before then.
Both of these examples have an end to an action. By and until, then, function to set a limit on an action or a distance (for limits to distance, until is the more commonly used preposition).
By the time: by is always attached to the end time, and the action that is related to it is usually expressed in a perfect tense; this is because the action came before that end time (if talking about the past), or it will have finished before the end time (if looking at a future action). When that action occurs is unclear—all we know is that it happened (or will happen) before the end time.
Until looks at the entire action that continues to the end time, or before. Until sets the end time, but the action can stop before then.
Hurry up! The train will have left by the time we get there.—get there = end time; train left before then (not important when)
Students are instructed to remain in their classrooms until further notice.—remain in classrooms will continue to end time (notice)
These two prepositions are often confused when dealing with the perfect tenses. Both are used as time referents, meaning that they complete the clause that uses a perfect tense by supplying a timeline for the action.
I have lived in Istanbul for five years.
I have lived in Istanbul since I graduated from high school.
In both sentences, the action (have lived) began at the same time. However, we use two different prepositions to point to that time; which one we use depends on how we want to present the timeframe.
We use for when we want to indicate a period of time, or a whole time. This means that the action started at the beginning of that time period and continued throughout. For will commonly be followed by a time measure (day(s), week(s), hour(s), etc.). However, for can also be followed by a collective expression, such as an indefinite time measure, or some expression of a collection of time. In either case, what follows for is a period, or amount of time:
I hadn’t seen Helen for years, and then last week, out of the blue, she called me to ask if I wanted to meet for a coffee and catch up on our lives.
In June, I will have been studying at this university for four years.
I’ve known Tom for as long as I can remember, and I can assure you that he is not the type of person who would do something like that.
We use since similarly with perfect tense clauses. The difference is that since points directly to the starting point of the action. In other words, it is definite (specific) and singular; it is not a collection of time, or a time period.
I hadn’t seen Helen since she left New York, and then last week, out of the blue, she called me to ask if I wanted to meet for a coffee and catch up on our lives.
I have been studying at this university since I was 18. (notice that we are not using the future perfect in this example—the reason is that the future perfect implies a future completion of an action and referring to a past time would be awkward)
I’ve known Tom since we were little kids, and I can assure you that he is not the type of person who would do something like that.
We can also use for and since to mean because. The difference between for and since in these cases is that for is a conjunction that joins two independent clauses, while since is a clause marker for an adverb clause. They appear the same, although the clause that uses for can be a complete sentence on its own, while the clause with since cannot (for + independent clause; since + dependent clause). Both, however, would need to be used in relation to another independent clause in order to make sense.
I decided to look for a new job since it was obvious I wasn’t going to advance at this one.
Doctors are often held in high regard, for theirs is considered a noble profession.
Note: for is considered highly formal and is not commonly used in spoken English. Even in written English, it is considered somewhat old-fashioned and rarely seen these days.
In terms of relative position, the main point of difference between these two prepositions is motion/movement. Something moves over something else, while something is simply higher than (hovers, lingers, or hangs above) something else. In terms of simple location, either preposition is correct, though above implies a more direct vertical relation, with a larger space gap.The painting hangs over/above the bed.
The birds flew over the city on their way south.
The clouds lingered above the city for days, always threatening rain but not releasing any.
In terms of superiority, (i.e., more than), over is more common, but certain contexts will require the use of above (note: over and above are used as adverbs here)
I’m afraid we cannot allow you to borrow more as you’ve already gone over the set limit.
His contributions were above expectations.
Joel answers to Bradley, who is directly above Joel in the department’s hierarchy.
Again, in terms of relative position, beneath suggest that something is directly under something else. Below suggests that something is under something else, yet with a space gap separating the two things.
Shane lives on the third floor, and his brother, Kyle, lives directly beneath him, on the second floor. They sometimes tap messages to each other through the floor/ceiling.
Shane’s girlfriend, Natalie, lives three floors below Kyle.
These two words are commonly confused in written work. The main culprit for the errors in use is usually an inattention to spelling, the only difference being the lone vowel in the middle of the word. However, these words function in completely unrelated ways, which makes a look at them useful and wise. First of all, then is an adverb, not a preposition. As such it functions in a different manner from than, which is a preposition.
Then: at that time; next (in a sequence); to introduce the result of a condition (if…then); in addition
Than: when compared to (note: than can also function as a conjunction when the comparison is of a verb. In these cases, than is followed by a clause)
He was never expected to become a serious threat then, but as the years went by, his power grew, as did his influence.—an opinion at that time (an understood reference to a particular time)
First fill out this form, then take it to the Dean’s office to get stamped.—next step
If you feel you must, then by all means go ahead.
You will have to pay the fees and penalties; then, there is also the matter of the taxes.—in addition
Russia is larger than Canada.—preposition
Their sales grew more rapidly than did ours.—conjunction
The preposition beside means next to, or on the side of something (in a physical relation): The table is beside the bed.
Besides, also a preposition, means other than, except (for), or in addition to.
Besides his immediate family members, Sean did not invite anyone to his wedding.
Besides his skills and talent for the position, Bill also has a certain charm that impressed the interviewers.
People sometimes mix besides and instead of, thinking that they are similar. Instead of means in place of, or as a substitute or alternative to something. In other words, something replaces something else; it is not added to something. Instead, on its own, is an adverb. It reflects on the verb in the sentence and states that an alternative action was done in place of the one mentioned:
Christine wasn’t given a raise; instead, she was appointed to a new position with the promise of a raise in the future. (instead of given, appointed)
Instead of a raise, Christine was given a new position and title.—no raise; only new position and title.
Besides a raise, Christine was given a new position and title.—raise, new position, and new title.
Besides can also mean something similar to anyway, in that we think of what has happened or been mentioned before as not so important:
Christine decided to leave her job and look for something that pays better. Besides, she didn’t really like her boss.
Past and beyond are used to indicate a movement that continues after a particular point or limit, respectively. You can move past a landmark, such as a building:
Go north on Main Street, past the library, then turn left on 1st Avenue and head west.—in this case, you will reach the library, continue after it, then look for that left turn.
You can go beyond a limit or expectation:
The reason he got the promotion ahead of more senior employees is that he always goes above and beyond the expectations of his managers.—he does more than is expected of him.
The president’s power extends far beyond the borders of his country.—a border is a limit.
Once you go past that bridge, you will have entered a new country.—after the (physical) bridge.
despite/in spite of
What we must first understand here is that despite is a preposition, while in spite of is a prepositional phrase, where spite is actually a noun wedged between two prepositions. Both forms function in the same way, however. The reason they have been included in this list is that many writers tend to mix these two forms. For example, some write despite of…, or in despite of…. It is important to realize that they are separate constructions and cannot be mixed. That being said, those who are new to writing in English often aren’t sure which one to use. Some people prefer to begin a sentence using despite (mostly because it is shorter and a little more formal):
Despite his resistance to the merger, the owner finally acceded to the buyout.
In spite of his resistance to the merger, the owner finally acceded to the buyout.
The owner finally acceded to the buyout, in spite of his resistance to the merger.
The owner finally acceded to the buyout, despite his resistance to the merger.
All four sentences above are correct and acceptable. Which one you use is more a matter of personal choice. Both forms mean that what follows the form (in the above case = his resistance to the merger) does not stop the action of the independent clause (the owner acceded). They are similar to although, but are always followed by a noun or gerund, whereas although is a clause marker and is always followed by a subject and verb.
Sometimes writers use in spite of to emphasize the opposite of because of/due to. For example:
The meeting was a success in spite of Howard’s involvement. This sentence suggests that although some people might think that Howard’s involvement helped, it in fact did not help and might have even hurt the meeting, but the meeting was a success nonetheless, i.e., in spite of his involvement.
Spite (noun): a feeling of hatred or contempt for someone/thing.
His spite for the opposition has made him a bitter opponent.
Spite (verb): to annoy, treat with contempt
He voted for her just to spite me. I know he doesn’t like her.