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The important thing to remember with prepositions is that they do not translate well. In English, as in most languages, preposition usage is often idiosyncratic—that means that each use has to be learned. A good dictionary is essential to help clarify the situation with prepositions. In addition, many prepositions are used in conjunction with verbs to form verb phrases or two word verbs, and they are often an important element in idioms. Some examples will help to show the difficulty that exists with prepositions and the need to use them carefully.

On has several different usages, e.g. I discovered a book on River Valley Road.

Meaning 1: The subject matter of the book was “River Valley Road.”
Meaning 2: I was on River Valley road when I discovered the book.
Meaning 3: I found the book lying somewhere along River Valley Road.

There are also various prepositions connected with “time” one preposition does not fit all cases, e.g. The appointment is on Tuesday at 10 in the morning.

  • On is used to refer to a particular day of the week, (Monday, Friday).
  • At is used to refer to a particular time of the day, (7.00 a.m., noon).
  • In is used to refer to a period of time in the future (the evening, a month).

In English there are many two word or phrasal verbs; they consist of a verb plus a preposition. These verb phrases have a special meaning and must be learned. A good dictionary will give the definitions; learn them so that you can use them correctly and effectively. A few examples of phrasal verbs using on are:

  • Students must focus on using prepositions correctly.
  • Most students depend on a good grammar text.
  • It is important to decide on the correct preposition to use in different circumstances.
  • I go on a different study course for a few weeks each summer.
  • The instructor insisted on our learning the irregular verbs.
  • We worked on the irregular verbs for over a week.

Similarly there are many idioms that incorporate prepositions. The few examples given here, again using on, should serve to show the necessity of learning idioms and integrating idiomatic language into your use own use of English.

Carry on (to continue) Please carry on while I make a phone call.
Catch on (to learn) The students caught on very quickly.
Cheat on (to be unfaithful) Harry has been cheating on his wife.
Count on (to depend on) We were counting on that $100 to last the week.

See the section on idiomatic usage for more information.

Updated September 10 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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