Prepped for Prepositions

I take requests. Today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday topic comes from Juliana Haygert, a Brazilian author living in the United States and writing English quite well, I think. However, English prepositions can get a little tricky, so she asked for a little clarification.

A preposition expresses spatial, temporal, or other relationship. In other words or where something is–such as in, on, before, among, under, with, and so on.

Here are some frequently used prepositions:

pic from Towson University

One of the first things you notice about prepositions is that most of them have antonyms. When possible, it may be easier to learn them in pairs. For instance, over and under, above and below, on and off, with and without, before and after. Of course, some prepositions, such as through, don’t have a perfect opposite.

Also, concerning usage, the preposition itself is usually enough to tell you where or when something is. We tend to add unnecessary words, such as saying “off of” when “off” is sufficient or “in among” when “among” will do the trick.

Again, prepositions express relationships–specifically in the following areas:

Location — such as in, on, under, above, below, atop, between, among.

Time — such as before, during, after, until, since.

Direction — such as toward, away from, into, across.

Figurative Location — such as with,  for, against (like claiming during an argument, “I’m with him,” “I’m for that,” or “I’m against that.” You don’t have to be physically there to be figuratively there in these examples.)

We tend to confuse prepositions at times, not knowing whether to use in or into, of or from, and that sort of thing. In conversational English, it may not matter all that much whether you get this exactly correct since meaning can often be derived from context and tone. However, in writing you need to make sure you’ve mastered the proper preposition. Ask yourself which question you are answering: Location? Figurative location? Time? Direction? Then choose the preposition that best fits. Here’s a great primer in the form of a rap song called The Preposition Dance: Puna Style. These three guys demonstrate the meaning of prepositions in relationship to a chair.

By the way, we English speakers and experts can argue from now until Buck Rogers’s day whether one should use between or among in certain scenarios. Having attempted to debate the nuances of that choice, and being fairly stubborn with my position, I have concluded that, between you and me and among all of us, it depends. So if I proofread your writing and see a specific instance, I will have an opinion. But a general rule is that two things requires between and more than two requires among.

There is one preposition that has caused me pause when I consider how people adopting English as a second language would learn its usage: by. It can express location, such as “Put the umbrella by the door.” It can express direction, such as “Let’s run by the store.” It can also express time, such as “I’ll be there by 8:00 p.m.” And it can express figurative location, such as “The novel by Stephen King.” It’s a multi-faceted preposition that I suppose one learns best by listening and practicing.

Here’s one more fun video to practice prepositions. This is The Preposition Dance from Obie Leff of Sing to Learn, with a group of 5th graders dancing along with the lyrics. Get up and join in as you listen! The moves are easy-peasy.

What questions do you have about preposition usage? What prepositions give you pause?

Source: Roane State Online Writing Lab; Towson University;

30 thoughts on “Prepped for Prepositions

  1. Wonderful explanations and videos Julie. It is often something as a first-language English speaker I take for granted. Not something I truly consider but go by what “sounds right”. So I love this post because it will help me to really consider the appropriate preposition usage going forward. You rock!

    1. Thanks, Natalie! I think there’s a lot one takes granted in a native language, and we may not realize how difficult some aspect is for others to learn. I have felt that way about French, Spanish, and Italian (which I’ve taken at different times, but still know very little).

  2. I had a great teacher for English in eighth grade when I learned all of this and though she was a veritable drill sergeant, I’ll never forget what she taught me. My pet peeve is when people say something like, “He told that story to Mrs. Perkins and I.” I want to scream. I’m always telling them to take out Mrs. Perkins and then say the phrase. AACH!

    1. I believe that too many people drilled the “you and I” thing into students’ head when they started sentences with “Me and Henry went….” So now a lot of people think it’s ALWAYS you and I. As you well point out, no so, friends! It’s a good thing you had a great English teacher. I’ve had both good and bad, but my parents are largely responsible for my grammar knowledge. Thanks!

  3. I had a teacher in I think 9th grade who taught me pretty well about prepositions and verbs etc… He used the analogy of the worm went … the apple. … = fill in the preposition. That is a useful way. I do like the different scenarios you mentioned about location, time, direction, figurative. Sometimes, I still have issues when writing to decide which one is best. Usually, I’ll just use my gut or even say it outloud to see if it sounds right. If not, then I’ll use a different word. I loved the first video. Fantastic and creative. Way to go, guys!

    1. The worm and apple analogy sounds marvelous! Kids would totally get that. I think object lessons and word pictures are wonderful teachers, and we should use them more often.

  4. I love this, Julie! I used to teach English grammar and writing classes to college freshmen. It was before Youtube…I would have loved to have these in my arsenal. I agree with you on between and among. After all, the cream is between the Oreo chocolate wafers, not among them. 😉

    1. What a great job! I’m sure not everyone would think so, but you certainly did the world a favor by teaching proper language usage to those about to launch into the world of work. As for the Oreos, I’m hungry now. Thanks, Diana!

  5. Thanks, Julie. Well done for a Calallen grad. JK. Misuse of between and among is among my pet peeves, too. Maybe I should turn my Friday grammar posts over to you. You seem to know the subject well.

    1. Ha! Calallen produced some decent grads here and there. 😉 I would love to see you tackle “between” and “among” more extensively, David. The weird examples are when there is a singular noun but it’s made of plural members: such as “between my husband and family” or “among my husband and family.” People can get very detailed and passionate about which way it should be.

    1. Ha! I’m sure you’re fine, Catie. This is probably just good to think about when you have that one sentence you read aloud and wonder, “Is that right?”

  6. +1 for the occasional between vs. among confusion, although now that I’m reading it here, I think I’ve heard that rule of thumb before. Oh, and it drives me nuts when someone says “between you and I.” Nooooo!

    1. Do you correct people about “between you and I”? I’ve wondered whether to speak up or not. I don’t want to be a walking English class, but it seems like people should know that it’s “between you and me.” It drives me especially crazy when I hear it in song lyrics.

    1. I often have to pause with “in” and “into” and think about how far in something really is! Reading the phrase or sentence aloud often helps me. Thanks, Calisa!

  7. Great post, Julie. Like Natalie, I tend to go by what sounds right, and that isn’t always correct. Prepositions are the kind of things that look easy but cause all sorts of problems!

  8. I haven’t noticed having any issues with preposition use, but I’m of the school of thought that says, “if it sounds right, it probably is right.” I’m pretty sure that I have used between and among the same as you, Julie, instinctively, but your example of “between/among my husband and family” left me feeling less sure of myself.

    I still remember my seventh grade language class (for some reason, they didn’t call it English class) when we learned about prepositions. The book we had showed a list of all 84 prepositions. Maybe there are more now, but as of the printing of our textbook, there were 84. I remember this clearly because our teacher offered the class a pizza party if anyone could memorize all 84, and one girl did it.

    Thanks so much for your in-depth post.

  9. Love this Julie! I once knew all the grammar rules. Now when I need them the most? They seem to have wandered from my brain and got lost. Between you and David, I’m re-learning. Thank you!

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