October 2013
Grammatically Speaking
by T. Leo Schmitt

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org. We welcome all types of language questions.

Grammatically Speaking,
I have many students who struggle with using correct prepositions and prepositional phrases. What do you suggest?

Thank you, Adela

Dear Adela,

Thank you for this challenging question. It is certainly an issue that I have seen many of my students wrestle with and one that perplexes many learners of English.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
Prepositions are an interesting group of words. They are a limited class, like conjunctions and pronouns. Unlike verbs, adjectives, and nouns, they are not limitless, but rather comprise a relatively small group and it is comparatively rare for new prepositions to enter the language.

Prepositions can appear as "particles" of phrasal  verbs such as “come on!”, “What to Look Out for if Buying a Home with Acreage in Clarksville,” and “Am I allowed to make up a quote?” These function quite differently from prepositions in prepositional phrases. I will attempt to deal with them in a later column.

Prepositions generally form prepositional phrases by joining together with a noun. In these cases, prepositions require a noun as their object. Thus we have “I went to take a morning walk in the local park,” “chatting with my friend,” or “for king and country.”  They can also join together with an entire prepositional phrase, as in “You can sync up to about 2GB of photos.” We can note a few things here. First, the preposition in English usually comes first in prepositional phrases. (Pre- is the Latin prefix for before, thus its position is before the noun.) Second, while the preposition and noun are the requirements for a prepositional phrase, the noun may also be, and often is, part of a noun phrase containing determiners and adjectives. Similar to adverbs, prepositional phrases are typically used to indicate time, manner, or place.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of good rules for prepositions, and even those have their exceptions. The two simplest ones that can benefit students, especially beginners, are for time and location.

Preposition Rules for Time
For time, we generally use:

Preposition Rules for Place
For place, we generally use:

While these two patterns are very useful for some basic communication, they do not cover much of the usage of prepositions, especially for more advanced texts. Verbs, nouns, and adjectives can all take prepositions, but many do not. We say that we “wait for the day” and are “in love with someone,” a “mother to your child,” and “scared of the future.” There are no clear patterns on why we use any of these particular prepositions. They behave much more like vocabulary than any kind of grammar. This is one of the reasons that so many learners of English struggle with prepositions. Indeed, prepositions are often the last part of language that advanced students master, simply because they have to learn them one by one.

Teaching Tips
We can certainly cover the physical meaning of prepositions, such as in meaning physically inside of something and the basic rules of time and place noted above, but most prepositions occur together with nouns, verbs, or adjectives beyond their physical meaning. For basic communication, it may not be worth focusing on prepositions in such instances, especially if it inhibits fluency.

Thus it makes sense to teach prepositions with new words when covering vocabulary. For example, when you teach the verb believe, it can be helpful for students to know that it often takes the preposition in when talking about a belief (“Do you believe in fate?”), but no preposition when talking about believing a person (“I believe Oprah”). Covering them together can help students form associations between words and their prepositions.

It is also worth highlighting that different prepositions can work with the same verb/adjective/noun, depending on the noun that follows. For example, we say an issue for a person/community or discussion/thought (“issue for Canadians”), an issue in a place or general field (“issue in medicine”), and an issue of a specific topic (“issue of medical ethics”). Such differences can be quite challenging and, although the concept may be introduced to lower level students, it may be best explored in detail by advanced students.

It can also help to explain phrasal verbs briefly in tandem with prepositional phrases, though the two function somewhat differently.

Language Notes
There are also some phrases in English that combine prepositions with adjectives. This is particularly true for for, such as “for good” or “for free.”

Some languages, such as Japanese or Turkish, rather use postpositions, where the meaning of the directional word (to, in, etc.) comes after the noun. Some languages, such as Kurdish, even use circumpositions, which have a part of the word before and part after the noun to which it refers.

Dialects are also notable for variations in usage of prepositions. In most of North America, people wait in line, but in New York City, people wait on line, and in Milwaukee you may be “by Aunt Mary’s” rather than “at Aunt Mary’s” as you would be in the rest of the country. Learners may sometimes be influenced by local variations rather than mainstream usage.

Last Month’s Brain Teaser
What is the problem with the common phrase seen at supermarket checkout aisles “Ten items or less,” and how would you explain it to students?

The first correct response:

The issue with this is that “items” is countable, and so “fewer” should be used; “less” should be used with uncountable nouns like “time,” “water,” “milk,” or “sand.” That said, in spoken English, many speakers use “less” with countable nouns, although this is certainly frowned upon by the educated.

Sometimes a noun has a countable and uncountable version, both with slightly different meanings. When used with less, it is the uncountable version. For example, I can have three rooms in my house, but if I say there is “less room” in my car, I’m using “room” as a substance I can have.
Bill Blond
English Language Program Instructor
University of Michigan-Flint

Thank you for your answer, Bill. As you mention, the key issue is that traditional grammar uses “few” with count nouns and “less” with noncount nouns. Thus we say “fewer bags” but “less luggage.” As you note, some nouns have both count and noncount meanings.

You also note that in spoken English, this traditional rule is often overlooked, with speakers using “less” instead of “fewer.” It is also worth noting that certain terms of measurement, such as money, distance, weight, and time, generally use the word “less” rather than “fewer” even though they are countable. Thus we would say “He has less than five dollars” and “The trip takes less than three hours” rather than using “fewer” in these instances.

“Ten items or less” seems to have similarities with this, and has clearly entered the language as a recognizable phrase, even if it frustrates traditional grammarians. 

This Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.
  2. Space-age polymer technology and their unique design allow them to swing silently and with low friction to their closed position. 

The best correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.


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Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the
author’s creations.