Prepositions can be really difficult to learn. Just look at this short conversation:
SALLY: What did you do yesterday?
JOHN: Well, I was at home most of the day, but then I had to go into work in the afternoon. I was in a meeting for about two hours, but I didn’t mind because now I’m on holiday.
The words I’ve highlighted above are called prepositions, and as you can see, there doesn’t seem to be any rule to how they’re used. Look at these examples from above:
- at home
- in a meeting
When we are talking about being somewhere, there are different prepositions we can use, and it can be hard to remember which one is the right one to use. For native speakers, we just know this sort of stuff, but for English learners, you have to try to remember it.
Today, I’m going to share some ideas to help you learn prepositions effectively.
Learn Whole Sentences
The first and most important piece of advice I will give you today is to learn prepositions by looking at whole sentences. This may sound obvious to some of you, but so many students don’t learn this way. It is more common to learn lists of words.
I always teach my students to learn collocations – that means learn groups of words that go together. For example, let’s take the word “knowledgeable,” which means a person who knows many things; someone who has a lot of knowledge. You might learn this word and think, “Great! I know a new word!”
But how do you use it?
Let’s look at some examples:
He is knowledgeable of science. He is knowledgeable with science.
- He is knowledgeable about science.
As you can see, only the last sentence is correct. “Knowledgeable” collocates with “about” but not other prepositions.
If you learned this word alone, you may try to put it into a sentence and make a mistake. Mistakes are fine, but for the IELTS exam, you really need to avoid them if you want to score band 7 or higher.
When you learn a new word, you should try to learn it from an authentic source, and you should make notes about how it was used. (I recently wrote a useful article about how to learn vocabulary effectively.)
If you learned the word in isolation, then you should consult a dictionary or check Google for some authentic examples of how it can be used.
Let’s take the example of “knowledgeable” and see what happens:
As you can see, this dictionary lists recent examples that can help us to correctly use the word “knowledgeable”.
Learning from Context
So how exactly do you go about learning prepositions in whole sentences? Well, the best way is to read a lot and make notes. I recommend that my students read at least one or two articles each day, and hopefully much more than that. If you really want to get better at English, you must do continual practice. Don’t just learn from textbooks because that is not always natural English, and sometimes they can be a bit boring.
When you read (whether articles, blog posts, novels, or anything else), you should pay attention to the language and make notes when you find something interesting.
Try the following:
- Read a page of writing.
- Highlight the prepositions.
- Find collocations you didn’t know.
- Write these in your notebook.
- Test yourself later.
In learning a new language, it is true that the more you read, the better you will write. Set aside some time every day to sit down and read something, and you will become more knowledgeable about prepositions. 😉
Make a Preposition Notebook
This idea is quite different from the last one, and may seem a little contradictory at first. It involves making a notebook (or part of a notebook) just for prepositions. What you will do is write a preposition at the top of a page, and then list its possible uses underneath. You don’t need to list everything, but you can write down any that you find when reading articles, and which you want to remember later.
This can be helpful in terms of studying because you note them down and then review them later. Although it sounds very different to my first suggestion, you can easily use these together. I don’t recommend searching a dictionary for different uses of the word “on”, for example. But it is a good idea to have an “on” page and to list collocations here whenever you find them. This will trigger your brain to remember the whole collocations more effectively.
Learn by Situation
Similar to the second idea above, you can also make a notebook for learning prepositions according to different situations. If you do want to have a whole page of sentences using “on” or “about”, then perhaps you might find it more helpful to have pages about different situations.
Take, for example, the situation of Talking About Time.
Why do we say,
- I’ll go fishing in July.
- I’ll go fishing on Monday.
- I’ll go fishing at six o’clock.
It’s crazy, right? Three different prepositions for stating time! English can be very annoying. If you ask, “Why?” you will not find an answer. It’s just something you need to remember.
Writing these sorts of things in a notebook will help you to make sense of them, and to remember them.
Use your Imagination
My final tip is to use your imagination. Studies have shown that the best way to remember something is to make mental associations by visualization a word or idea. In fact, the more unusual the visualization, the better you will remember the word or idea!
So how can this apply to learning prepositions?
Let’s take two troublesome examples:
- I got on the bus.
- I got in the car.
Why do we say “on” for buses but “in” for cars?! 🤬
I don’t know, but when my students ask me this question, I tell them that your car is like your house. You don’t get on your house; you go in. When you are in your car, it is your own space, and so you feel safe and secure in it.
If you can commit this image to your mind, it will help you remember the distinction between the two.
It might also help to think about the history of buses. Nowadays a bus is enclosed like a car, but in the past it was open, and so you would have climbed on it.
Ok, finally, here’s a little test for you. See if you can fill in the blanks in these sentences. I’ll post the answers in the comment section. No cheating!
- I’m excited _________ going to the park this weekend.
- We agree ________ most things, but we still fall out sometimes.
- This movie is based ________ a popular novel from 1967.
- I’ve been quite bored ________ my job lately.
- What are you worried ________? It’ll be fine.
- I insist _____ paying for dinner tonight. You got it last time.
- You’ll find the file attached ______ this e-mail.
- She was deeply ashamed _______ what she did.
- I don’t approve _____ you acting like that around my kids.
- Are you interested ______ board games?