Time for a quick review of the English prepositions (1)

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Early this month an English grammar enthusiast who follows me on Facebook, Edward G. Lim, suggested that I write about prepositions. I promised to take them up sometime soon, and I think that right now is as good a time as any to do a quick review of this part of speech in English.

I’ll do away with a rigorously formal definition of this part of speech, which I fear might just lead us to difficult grammatical terms and concepts. Instead I propose to look at them simply as a word or group of words for showing where a noun or pronoun is located in space and time.

This way, we can divide the common run of prepositions into the following five groups that establish a space or time relationship between ideas within a phrase, clause, or sentence:

1. Prepositions of place and location: “in,” “at,” and “on”

2. Prepositions of motion: “to,” “toward,” “in,” and “into”

3. Prepositions of movement and direction: “to,” “onto,” and “into”

4. Prepositions for specific points of time: “on,” “at,” “in,” and “after”

5. Prepositions for periods or extended time: “since,” “for,” “by,” “from…to,” “from…until,” “before,” “during,” “within,” “between,” and “beyond.”

It then becomes conceptually simpler to specify rules of usage for each of the prepositions.

Prepositions that indicate place and location in space: The general rule is to use “in” for an enclosed space, “at” for a point, and “on” for a surface. In American English, here are some specific guidelines for their use:

1. Use “in” for spaces: “They always meet in a secret room [in a suburban hotel, in a parking lot, in a farm, in a ricefield].”

2. Use “in” for names of specific land areas: “She lives in a quiet town [in Tagaytay, in Cavite, in Southern Tagalog, in Southeast Asia].

3. Use “in” for bodies of water: “That kind of fish thrives in freshwater [in the river, in the lake, in the sea].”

4. Use “in” for lines: “The registrants are in a row [in a line, in a queue].”

5. Use “at” to indicate points: “You’ll find us at the entrance [at the taxi stand, at the supermarket, at the intersection].”

5. Use “at” for specific addresses, as in “She lives at 40 Lilac St.”

6. Use “on” for names of streets, roads, avenues, and boulevards: “Her apartment is on San Pablo Street [on Ortigas Avenue, on Roxas Boulevard].”

7. Use “on” for surfaces: “There’s a large stain on the floor [on the wall, on the ceiling].”

The prepositions “in,” “at”, and “on” for indicating people in space:

1. Use “in” in these cases: “The children are in the kitchen [in the garden, in the car, in the library, in the class, in school]. (The article “the” is mandatory except for the fourth and last example.)

2. Use “at” in these particular cases: “She was at home [at the library, at the office, at school, at work]when we arrived.”

3. Use “on” in these particular cases: “They are on the plane [on the train, on the boat].”

Prepositions that establish motion and direction: The prepositions “to,” “toward,” “in,” and “into” link the verbs of movement—“move,” “go,” “transfer,” “walk,” “run,” “swim,” “ride,” “drive,” “fly,” “travel,” and many more—to their object destination. All of these verbs (except “transfer”) can take both “to” and “toward.” Use “to” to convey the idea of movement toward a specific destination; use “toward” to convey movement in a general direction that may not reach a specific destination: “Please take me to the bus station.” (The speaker obligates the listener to specifically take him to a particular place.) “The speedboat headed toward the harbor.” (The speaker indicates only a movement in a general direction.)

We’ll continue these discussions next week.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. vagoneto rieles on

    Mr. Carillo…Thanks for the primer on prepositions. It is now book-marked in my laptop. When next you have an inkling, please consider writing a primer on ‘punctuation marks’. These pesky things could change the whole meaning of a phrase or sentence; and, they often influence the reader’s inflection, context and syntax. Come to think of it…it might be necessary.

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