The mastery of prepositions

About two years ago, I conducted an informal survey among those whose proficiency in English is fairly good to find out which aspect of English they found difficult to master.

Published: 16th January 2017 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th January 2017 12:37 PM   |  A+A-

Dr Albert P Rayan

Express News Service

About two years ago, I conducted an informal survey among those whose proficiency in English is fairly good to find out which aspect of English they found difficult to master. Those who took part in the survey included students, teachers, soft skills trainers, and engineers in India.

Over eighty per cent of them said that mastering prepositions was tough for them. I was not surprised by the result of the survey. When I shared the survey result with a friend in Sweden, who worked in Africa for a few years, she said, “Even students at the intermediate level make mistakes in prepositions. Prepositions present problems not only for learners but also for teachers.”  
Prepositions (on, in, at, under, for, with, up) have been tricky for those who have learnt English as a second/foreign language. In the past, I have responded to a number of queries related to the use of prepositions.  Here are some of the queries:

  •   On the campus or in the campus?
  •   On a train or in a train?
  •   Admitted to or admitted in the hospital?
  •   Scheduled on 16th January or scheduled for 16th January?
  •   Advanced to 14th June or advanced for 14th June?

Prepositions play a vital role in conveying the meaning of a sentence. They are familiar words yet they are difficult for learners to master. Why do learners find it difficult to use prepositions correctly? Most prepositions have multiple meanings and they have different functions. For example, ‘for’ has twelve different meanings. No literal translations for many prepositions are possible.  

Consider the preposition ‘about’. When Tamil speakers try to translate ‘about’ to their language, they make these mistakes:  I discussed about the movie. We had a discussion about the topic. The correct sentences are: I discussed the movie. We had a discussion on the topic. It is not easy to decide which word goes with a particular preposition or which preposition goes with a particular word.  That is why learners raise queries similar to the ones listed above.

It is not necessary for learners to know the meanings of all content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) but it is essential for them to know all the grammatical words (prepositions, articles, pronouns and auxiliary verbs) in order to communicate effectively.  Instead of learning words in isolation, it is good to learn the words in chunks like on TV, on Facebook, on the internet, on the left/right, on the list. Below are examples of easy-to-remember preposition chunks.
Adjective+preposition:  accustomed to, allergic to, attached to, beneficial to, bored with, certain about, crazy about, doubtful about, etc.
Noun+preposition: addiction to, advantage of, belief in, devotion to, experience in, etc. Verb+preposition: approve of, arrive in,comment on, compete with, count on, cope with, etc.
Prepositions of time: on  days (on Monday), in months/seasons/year (in June/winter/2017), at night, etc.

Dr Albert p’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English. He can be contacted at

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