Painful prepositions in English?

I hear you! Prepositions aren’t an easy topic to learn or to teach in English, as apparently there are between 60 and 70 prepositions in the English language.

In this post today I will not cover all possible 60-70 prepositions, as you can imagine, but I will help you understand how you can learn them more easily and I will recommend some resources – although you, my dear students, will still have to put in the hard work!

Why such simple words like: on, in, at or about can be so tricky?

I guess it’s because they are so versatile – they can have different uses and meanings depending on the context, depending if they follow a noun, an adjective or a verb.

My first advice for you when learning prepositions is: DO NOT PANIC! Next, follow the steps:

  1. 1. Again: DO NOT PANIC!:)
  2. 2. Don't mix them: separate them in categories depending 
    on the context they're used.
  • Prepositions of place: on, under, behind, in front of, next to, below etc. Practice these prepositions when describing your house and the disposition of objects in your rooms.
  • Prepositions of movement

One of the most common verb+preposition combinations is: go to, although other verbs can also be used with to, like: move to, travel to, come to, leave to because they imply movement and the change of location. Here are some examples:

– In the summer we usually go to the mountains. (from home to the mountains)

– I moved to France two years ago. (from Italy to France)

– They came to the cinema by taxi. (from home to the cinema)

Other prepositions of movement can be learnt when you study giving directions in a city  (if you prepare for a trip abroad), like: walk along the river, go over the bridge, go through the park. The meaning of these prepositions isn’t very difficult to guess: along the river (follow the length of the river), over the bridge (cross the bridge from one end to the other), through the park (walk in and cross the park, like a tunnel, maybe).

  • Prepositions of time

That’s quite an easy topic: in/on/at – these are the main time prepositions you should know very well at the beginning. Here are two tables I found on this website that summarise how to use these 3 prepositions!


  • Transportation prepositions

In general we use by to refer to the means of transport we use, for example:

I usually go to school by bus, but today I got to school by subway. I never go by/on foot.

When it comes to public transport we generally use get on when we step on the bus, tram, train, subway, plane, and get off the bus/tram/train etc. when we leave the means of transport. Differently,  we say get in the taxi and get out of the taxi (as it’s somehow smaller, the shape of a room, so you get in and out of it, like from a room).

You can find more examples and explanations about transportation prepositions here.

3. Learn the verb + prepositions or adjectives + prepositions as you meet 
them - there is no magic formula ;)

Here’s where you have to put in some effort because there’s no pattern and no logical explanation, I’m afraid.

One of my students asked me which is correct: helpful to me, or helpful for me – both can be correct and the adjective helpful can get other prepositions depending on the context:

  • The program is very helpful for teenagers.
  •  They were helpful in explaining how the program works.

If in doubt, check the Oxford Dictionary, for example, look at the examples given and choose the meaning you are looking for.

British Council in this webpage has some introductory examples and practice exercises on how to use adjectives +prepositions.

Regarding verbs + prepositions, check these pages here and here.

4. Learn chunks of language, groups of 3-4 words that include 

Let me give you the most basic chunks of language that include prepositions which you may use to talk about yourself. Here are some facts about me, that you can adapt to yourself:

 I know sports are good for your health, but I’m not a very sporty person. I am more interested in music and art, and my friends say I have a green thumb, I‘m really good at gardening! I’m not very keen on hiking or outdoor sports, but thanks to one of my best friends, I grew very fond of swimming in all kinds of weather, summer or winter alike.

I’m not getting into any details about phrasal verbs here, because they are a completely different category, and I may write a separate post about them in the future, if you’re interested, of course.

I hope this was useful! Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next posts. Please contact me for any reason; I love receiving messages and answering questions!

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