Let’s talk about prepositions

Sometimes people learning English can get frustrated with prepositions. If their native language has such words, the way prepositions are used in English is often different. If they have no experience with prepositions, then it can be even harder, because they don’t always understand this grammatical concept.

Most grammarians recognise 150 prepositions in English. You don’t have to know them all because some are very rare, but we use others quite a lot. I’m not going to go through them all. However, I can provide a few pointers to clarify how they work. Sometimes it can seem like they are almost random, because English is such a mixture of other languages. But there are some rules of thumb that you can apply in the majority of cases.

We will not cover it all in this one blog post. I will write several blog entries to explain the most common prepositions, and identify some of the typical mistakes that learners make.

The first thing to remember is that prepositions are not to be feared. They are simply words which show the relationship of one thing to another, or the position an object is in. Note that they are always attached to a noun or pronoun. The most common types of prepositions refer to time, place, and movement.

Let’s start with this: “The cat is on the floor.”

“Pre-” means “before” and “position” means physical location in the sentence. So the preposition “on” comes before the main word it relates to – in this case, “floor”. Some languages use postpositions (after the word) to express the same thing. For example, in Finnish, it would be Kissa on lattialla, where -lla is the postposition.

In the English sentence above, “on” explains the relationship between the cat (a noun) and the floor (another noun). In this example, it is a preposition of place.

Generally speaking, we use “on” like this when we want to say that something is on a surface. The floor is a surface, so things can be on it. The food is on the plate. The plate is on the table. If you are sitting down, you are probably on a chair. If you are dressed, you have clothes on your body – your skin is a surface. You can write on paper.

If you want to talk about travelling by certain kinds of transport, you are on a plane, on a bus, on a train, on an ocean liner. However, we are in a car, in a truck, in a rowboat. I have never seen this explained anywhere, but I believe the reason is because when you are on a larger type of transport, you can walk around inside it on the surface of the floor, whereas when you are in smaller transport, there is very limited movement. You can’t walk around inside a car.

Every language student knows that English is full of exceptions. Here’s another exception: use “on” when referring to technology. So, you listen to music on the radio, you play games on your computer, you see a show on television, you talk on the telephone. “On” still refers to place here; although it’s not always a surface, it does indicate the location of electronic signals.

You can also use “on” to express time. If you are on time, you are on schedule – in other words, keeping to the timetable. If you say on Tuesday, on your birthday, or on Christmas Day, you are referring to an exact day.

People employ “on” in other ways too, but these are the most common ones when it is working as a preposition. How else have you seen it used?