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Why are Prepositions so Difficult to Learn?

5 min read
20 September 2013
Kaplan English School Bath - Photo Gallery 7

Mastering prepositions has to be one of the hardest parts of learning English. Are you in a restaurant or at a restaurant? It’s frustrating because in some situations they are interchangeable and in others they aren’t. If you are waiting for someone outside a restaurant, you are at the restaurant, not in the restaurant; but if you are inside a Denny’s, you can be both in or at the restaurant.


1. History of Prepositions

Prepositions have a fascinating history in English, and to understand where they come from, it helps to understand the concept of inflection: a bit that’s added to the beginning, middle, or end of a word to convey additional meaning. For example, the apostrophe-s is one of the only remaining inflections in English--it marks possession. Cole’s pen means the pen belongs to Cole. Maybe your native language has inflectional endings that serve the same role that many prepositions do in English. Serbian, German, and many Native American language, for example, are more inflected than English.

It turns out that Old English was an inflected language. The word endings conveyed meaning, but during the transition to Middle English, nearly all the inflections were lost, and people gradually started using prepositions instead.


2. Prepositions Are Hard to Understand

Perhaps because they’re so common, preposition are notoriously hard to assign a meaning to. They often have multiple and overlapping meanings, as our “in the restaurant/at the restaurant” situation showed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has 10 different meanings for the preposition on. For example, on can describe being in contact with something (the book is lying on the table) or your participation in something (I’m on the team).

Further, there can be regional variations in prepositions. People in parts of the East Coast who are lined up for concert tickets are more likely to say they’re standing on line, whereas everywhere else in the United States, we’re more likely to say we’re standing in line. Both are grammatically correct; it’s just a regional difference.


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3. British English Versus American English

British English sometimes uses different prepositions from American English too. In the US, we’d say something is different from (the standard) something else, or perhaps that something is different than something else (less acceptable, but still common), but in Britain, you might also hear that something is different to something else, which sounds very odd to American ears.


4. My Secret Preposition Weapon

My secret preposition weapon is the Google Books Ngram Viewer. With this tool, you can see the frequency of phrases in books that Google has scanned. If you’re hearing people say both “on accident” and “by accident,” you can plug those words into the Google Ngram Viewer and see that “by accident” is far more common--it’s still the phrase that’s considered Standard English.

You can even limit your search to American English or British English to get a better answer for the particular place you live.


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