English Prepositions Every ESL Writer Needs to Learn. Here’s Why:

Hello again, budding ESL writer! We left off our last ESL post (How to Avoid 3 Common ESL Writing Mistakes) reminding you that it’s okay if your written English isn’t perfect because there’s  no such thing as perfect English. That’s an important message to remember as we get into this next lesson about English prepositions. Because, let me tell you, prepositions are tough to master!

What Is an English Preposition?

Good question. At its most basic definition, a preposition is a word that gives other words context of time, place, location, and movement in a sentence.

Prepositions are exciting (yes, I’m serious, just stick with me here) because they allow us to describe our world in a more complex and meaningful way. Prepositions are kind of like 3D (no wait…4D!) glasses; they give our writing context and allow our words to flow through space and time.  Without prepositions, we could only relay information in a single dimension.

English Prepositions Lesson

There are about 150 prepositions in the English language, which really isn’t that many, especially when compared to the 171,400+ total English words in current use.

Even though there are relatively few English prepositions, learning them can be difficult because they don’t really have any meaning by themselves. A preposition only has meaning when it is paired with another word or phrase.

For example, while the noun “dog,” by itself, can bring up images of an adorable, furry pet, the preposition “on,” by itself, is meaningless until you put it in context, as in this sentence: “the dog is on the table.”

english prepositions dog on a table
Photo by David Shankbone

Now, thanks to the preposition, we can imagine this dog in the context of place…on the table.

Just as a preposition is meaningless without its context, some sentences will be incorrect if they lack a preposition or have the wrong one.

Here is an example of a sentence that doesn’t make much sense without a preposition: “The dog is the table.”

This sentence is missing the important preposition “on,” which places the dog in relation to the table. Removing “on” makes it seem as if we’re trying to say the dog is actually a table. Like this one:

English Prepositions Lesson
Image by Cuckoo 4 Design

What happens if we use the wrong preposition though? For example, “The dog is at the table.” In this sentence, I swapped the important preposition “on” with the incorrect preposition “at.” Now, it seems we are saying the dog is seated at the table, perhaps about to enjoy a fast-paced poker game, like these pups:

English Prepositions Lesson
Waterloo c. 1906

Now, this may be correct English, but it’s definitely not what we were trying to say.

Isn’t it amazing how adding or swapping out the humble, little English preposition “on” completely changes the meaning of a sentence?

Now that you have a better idea of what English prepositions are and how they function in a sentence, let’s talk about some of the more common problems we see with English prepositions in the ESL papers we edit at Kibin.

Confusing English Prepositions: On/In/At

Bad Example“She was born in a cold Wednesday, on October, at the morning, on 8:00.”

It’s not surprising that determining when to use the English prepositions “on,” “in,” and “at” can be confusing. For one, many other languages use a single word for all three of these (wouldn’t that be nice?). And for two, these three words can be used in a multitude of ways to create a context of time and place.

Here are some examples of their proper use:

Prepositions of Time

Use “at” for a specific time:

  • Good exampleWe are meeting at noon.
  • Good exampleWe always have breakfast at 7:30.

Use “on” to designate a day or date:

  • Good exampleShe was born on a Wednesday.
  • Good exampleShe was born on October 21st.

Use “in” for a month, year, or nonspecific time:

  • Good exampleHer birthday is in May.
  • Good exampleShe was a child in 1984.
  • Good exampleHe walks his dog in the evening.

If you think about it, you can picture “at” designating a specific time, “on” designating a larger, less specific time, and “in” designating an even larger, nonspecific time.

On a spectrum, it looks like this:

Very Specific Less Specific   Nonspecific
“We are meeting at noon, on Wednesday, in May.”

While the English prepositions “at,” “on,” and “in” can be used to define times, they are also used to define places.

Prepositions of Place

Use “at” to describe a specific place:

  • Good exampleWe are meeting at Jessica’s house.
  • Good exampleWe are having dinner at the Italian restaurant.

Use “on” to describe a street or road:

  • Good exampleJessica lives on Elm Street.
  • Good exampleThe Italian restaurant is on Auburn Road.

Use “in” for towns, countries, continents and other big areas:

  • Good exampleHer family lives in Canada.
  • Good exampleTom knows a lot of people in his city.
  • Good exampleIt’s very cold in Antarctica.

Again, you can look at this on a spectrum with “at” describing a very small, specific location, “on” describing a bigger, less specific location, and “in” describing a large, nonspecific location.

Very Specific Less Specific   Nonspecific
“We are meeting at Jessica’s house, on Elm Street, in Los Angeles.”

Now, can you correct this incorrect sentence from above?
Bad Example“She was born in a cold Wednesday, on October, at the morning, on 8:00.”

Here’s the answer:
Good example”She was born on a cold Wednesday, in October, in the morning, at 8:00.”

I wish I could say, “that’s it, now you know the difference between on, in, and at.” Unfortunately, the other thing that makes English prepositions so difficult to learn is that they are used in such a variety of ways. Those finite 150 words have infinite possible combinations to create different meanings.

Consider how these same prepositions were used earlier in this post to describe an object’s relationship with another object, as in our dog/table example. “On” describes the dog “on top of” the table, and “at” describes the dogs “seated at the table.” If I’d used “in,” our dog would be “inside the table” (which would only work if there were some sort of compartment or cupboard for the dog to get into in the first place). A common scenario would be for the dog to be “under” the table begging for food.

For more information on the differences between “at,” “in,” and “on,” I suggest you visit this forum about prepositions, check out this lesson on prepositions, and try this prepositions test.

Before I let you go off into the world of written English, I want to give you a couple more examples of confusing English prepositions.

Confusing English Prepositions: beside/besides

Bad Example“He sat besides the river thinking about everywhere he’d rather be beside living in this small town.”

I’m happy to report that these two prepositions are pretty easy to master. That pesky s makes all the difference between the prepositions “beside” and “besides.”

“Beside” means “at the side of.”

Good example“He sat beside the river.”

To remember this, just think about how the word “side” does not end in an s. When you are trying to describe one thing being on the side of something else, you use “beside.”

“Besides” means “in addition to” or “instead of.”

Good example“He was thinking about everywhere he’d rather be besides living in this small town.”

To remember this, think of “besides” being spelled with an s, which usually indicates plural in English; “in addition to” and “instead of” implies plurality as well, so use “besides.”

Confusing English Prepositions: by/with

Bad Example“The burger was eaten with Carl by a fork.”

The preposition “by indicates the subject of the sentence, or the person or thing doing something. In this sentence, it’s Carl. So, “the burger was eaten by Carl.” (Although, this is a terrible sentence because it uses passive voice… if I were editing your essay, and it had this sentence, I would ditch the “by” and change it to active voice: “Carl ate the burger.” But, that’s a lesson for another day!)

The preposition “with” indicates the indirect object being used to affect the direct object in this sentence. In this case, the “fork” (indirect object) is affecting the “burger” (direct object).

To correct this sentence, first we need to swap the prepositions around: “The burger was eaten by Carl with a fork.” Then, we need to get rid of the passive voice: “Carl ate the burger with a fork.” And, finally, we need to slap Carl for eating a burger with a fork.  Eat it with your hands, man!

English Prepositions Lesson
Lise Gagne/istock

Check out this post for more information on the difference between “by” and “with.”

A Final Note

As I said before, there are about 150 English prepositions out there. Obviously, this post only covers a select few. But, hopefully, it gives you a better idea of how prepositions function in a sentence.

English prepositions can be confusing to an ESL writer because, at times, there may not seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason about when to use which word. And, it’s true! It doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Rest assured, you’re not crazy–it’s English that’s crazy.

The best way to learn how to use English prepositions is to practice, practice, practice. I guarantee you that most native speakers do not have any idea why they use certain English prepositions when they speak. After a lot of practice, it will just start to sound “natural” to you, and, like a native, you won’t imagine saying it any other way.

With that in mind, I asked Raghu Sukumar over at Happy Schools Blog for his best advice for ESL students to become better English writers. Here’s what he had to say:

“The process of learning to write in English for non-native English speakers is similar to learning to play any physical sport. The skills required to play the game can’t be learned from textbooks.


“One can learn the rules of the games from books, but actual skills to play the games can be perfected only by playing and practicing the sport.  Likewise, you can learn English only by practicing to write and speaking without fear.  When you improve your spoken English, writing skills will improve automatically. So, improve your English writing skills by learning to speak better.”

While you’re practicing, let us help you edit your English, so you can learn from your writing mistakes. Cheers!

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