This article is written for the benefit of non-native speakers who are writing their dissertations.
To explain all the difficulties with prepositions in English would require many years; the only way English language students can learn about the use of prepositions and phrasal verbs is through practice and paying close attention to speech and the written word.
Here, first, is a guide to the correct use of prepositions.
Prepositions: time and place
We use “in” for non-specific times during a day, a month, a season, or a year
She likes to go for run in the morning
I will leave in an hour
It’s too cold in winter to go running
He started the job in 2011
He’s going on holiday in August
We use “in” for the names of towns, counties, states, countries, and continents.
She lives in Sao Paulo
Sao Paulo is in Brazil
Brazil is in South America
“In” with no definite article (‘the’)
Where ‘in’ and ‘at’ are both possible:
in/at the library
We use “on” with expressions that indicate the time or day of an occurrence.
He was born on December 23
We will arrive on the fourth of July
I will see you on Friday
We also use “on” to designate names of streets, avenues, etc.
Her house is on Raglan Road
We also use ‘on’ to describe location – where something is.
on the floor
on the plane
on the train
on the bus
on the left
on the right
on the radio
on the wall
(Dublin is) on the Liffey
on the first floor
on the radio
We lie in bed
We lie on the sofa.
We use “at” to designate specific times or places.
The train is due at 12.15pm
I relax at night
I live at 51 Raglan Road in Dublin
I am at home
I am at work
I am at the office
My friend is at the door
I am at the restaurant
I am at the table
I am at the party
I am at the concert
We watch a film at the cinema
We watch a film on television
Other prepositions in time:
Since: from a certain point of time in the past till now
Example: I’ve been living here since 1990
For: over a certain period of time (past till now)
Example: I’ve been living here for 23 years
Ago: a certain time in the past
Example: I went to Brazil 20 years ago
Before: earlier than a certain point of time
Example: before 2004
To: telling the time.
Example: ten to six (5.50pm)
Past: telling the time
Example: ten past six (6.10pm)
To/till/until: describing the beginning and end of a period of time.
Example: from Monday to/till Friday
Till/until: describing how long something is going to last.
Example: he is on holiday until Friday
By: describing the latest moment.
I will be back by 6 o’clock
By 11 o’clock, I had read five pages
By/next to/beside: this indicates that something is to the left or right of somebody or something.
Example: Renata is standing by/next to/beside the door
Prepositions of Time: FOR and SINCE
We use “for” when we measure time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years).
He held his breath for 50 seconds
She’s lived there for seven years
The British and Irish have been fighting for seven centuries
We use “since” with a specific date or time.
He’s worked here since 1970
She’s been sitting in the waiting room since two-thirty
Prepositions about place
We use “to” in order to express movement toward a place.
They were driving to work together
She’s going to the dentist’s office this morning
I am going to bed
I want to go to the cinema
I will go to London
Toward and towards are also helpful prepositions to express movement. These are simply variant spellings of the same word; use whichever sounds better to you.
We’re moving toward the exit
This is a big step towards the project’s completion
With the words home, downtown, uptown, inside, outside, downstairs, upstairs, we use no preposition.
Grandma went upstairs
Grandpa went home
They both went outside/downtown/uptown, etc.
Under―indicates that something is lower than something else, and is on the ground.
Example: The handbag is under the table
Below― indicates that something is lower than something else, and is above ground.
Example: the fish are below the surface (of the water)
Over―means that something is covered by something else.
Example: put a coat over your shirt
‘Over’ also means older than a particular age.
Example: The girl is over 18 years of age
‘Over’ can also mean a movement across something.
Example: to walk over the bridge; to climb over the wall
Above―higher than something else, but not directly over it.
Example: a path above the lake
Across―getting to the other side (also over)
Example: walk across the bridge; swim across the lake
Through―something with limits on top, bottom and the sides
Example: I drive through the tunnel
Into―enter a room/building.
Example: I went into the house
Onto―indicates movement to the top of something
Example: To jump onto the table
From―indicates where something comes from
Example: A flower from the garden
NOUNS with PREPOSITIONS
ADJECTIVES with PREPOSITIONS
VERBS and PREPOSITIONS
look forward to
A phrasal verb is a combination of verb and preposition. Here is a brief guide to their correct use.
You agree to a proposal
You agree with a person
You agree on a price
You agree in principle
You argue about a matter
You argue with a person
You argue for/against a proposition
“compare to” to show likeness.
Example: Brazil can be compared to Portugal for some cultural things they have in common.
“compare with” to show differences.
Example: Brazilian weather is very hot compared with Irish weather.
Something “differs from” something else which is unlike it.
Example: China differs from Brazil as regards culture.
You “differ with” with a person if you disagree with him/her.
You “live at” an address
You “live in” a house or city
You “live on” a street
You “live with” other people
The teacher’s desk:
We are speaking about the desk
We are speaking about nothing except the desk
You can sit in front of the desk
The teacher can sit on the desk (when he’s being informal) or behind the desk
His feet are under the desk (or beneath the desk)
He can stand beside the desk (or next to the desk)
He can stand between you and the desk
He can rest his elbows on (or upon) the desk
He often looks across the desk
The teacher does not look like the desk
You may wonder what’s in the desk
How much did the school pay for the desk?
You can walk toward (or to) the desk
You can dance around the desk
You do your homework for the class
You have your breakfast before the class
You do not see the teacher until the class
You listen during the class
You go for a coffee after the class