Problematic Prepositions

“I’ll be there in a few minutes! I’m coming…by car? in a car? with a car?” How can you tell which preposition to use when there are so many options and no rules?!

What’s a preposition?

“I’ll see you at school!”…or should it be “in school”?

Prepositions are those little words that tell you where in space or time something happens, giving a more specific description of which noun or what kind of action.

The book on the table.
He threw the ball through the window.
I’ll call you in a few hours.
I’ve wanted to study abroad since childhood.

Prepositions themselves are just the little words like “on”, “through”, “in”, or “since”, but within a sentence they mark the beginning of a prepositional phrase, as marked in bold above. Recall that phrases are words that go together. Likewise, a prepositional phrase includes a preposition, an object (a noun, pronoun, or gerund), and any modifiers (words that describe the object).

For the first example, The book on the table, the breakdown is like so:

on (preposition)
the (modifier)
table (object)

And this whole prepositional phrase modifies the noun “book”, telling you which book. The following is a list of the most common prepositions to help you recognize them.

Remember that (almost) every prepositional phrase begins with a preposition. There are a few less common exceptions in English, like “five years ago” (in which “ago” is the preposition), but technically this is a postposition, not a preposition. “Post” means “after”, and you can see how the adposition word “ago” comes after the object. However, it serves the same purpose as a preposition.

What’s the trick to getting prepositions right?

The ugly truth is this: there really are no overall rules that can help you pick the right preposition every time. Instead, getting it right is a matter of practicing enough to become familiar with common uses and getting the “feel” of what works naturally. HOWEVER, there is also a short-cut to help you figure out your specific questions!

Put Google to work for you by searching for confusing phrases and comparing how often they are used. The Google Books Ngram Viewer will show you stats on how often your phrase appears in its database of books, and you can even choose to search only American English or British English. While not foolproof, the results should give you more confidence by letting you see which option is more common.

For example, here are what the results for our “by car” vs. “in a car” dilemma look like:

To compare apples to apples, I ran it first with just “by car” and “in car” then with “by a car” and “in a car” (below).

Getting it right, in this case, depends on choosing the right preposition to match the modifier use. Notice how the results for in/by reverse depending on whether “a” is included. If the word “car” has a modifier before it (like “a”, “the”, or something more complicated like “my mother’s”) then the correct preposition is “in”. If “car” is used alone, then you should pick “by”. As long as you phrase it correctly, either option (“by car” or “in a car”) is completely fine.

The problem with prepositions is that so many words have specific rules like this — how can you possibly know them all? Using “by” only when transportation words (like car, bus, train, or bike) are used as nouns alone most often works. However, if you use a modifier (“a bus” or “a bike”) you cannot simply use “in”. Nope. Although “in a car” is correct, you would say “on a bus” or “on a bike”.

How can you know?! Search. Practice. Just keep writing! You’ll pick up on what feels natural little by little the more you use these kinds of words.

Let’s Practice!

Test your intuition (or your searching skills…) with these practice problems. Choose the preposition that seems to best fit the sentence, then check your answers at the bottom of the page.

  1. I want to know all ___ prepositions.
    a. with
    b. about
    c. on
    d. for
  2. After parking, I got ___ the car.
    a. down from
    b. off of
    c. out of
    d. outside
  3. The best learning method consists ___ practice and perseverance.
    a. of
    b. in
    c. on
    d. with
  4. I am always amazed ___ new places and cultures.
    a. about
    b. for
    c. by
    d. with
  5. Do you have an interest ___ English movies?
    a. on
    b. in
    c. about
    d. for
  6. You don’t have to agree ___ someone to understand them.
    a. to
    b. in
    c. with
    d. at
  7. If you believe ___ yourself, you can do it!
    a. in
    b. about
    c. to
    d. on
  8. I will call you ___ the morning.
    a. at
    b. on
    c. to
    d. in
  9. Have you heard ___ parasailing before?
    a. on
    b. of
    c. for
    d. by
  10. You know you can always count ___ me and put your faith ___ me.
    a. in, in
    b. on, in
    c. in, on
    d. on, on

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(Answers: 1.b 2.c 3.a 4.c 5.b 6.c 7.a 8.d 9.b 10.b)

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