One of the things that even very high level students of English often make mistakes with is prepositions, for example ‘in’, ‘at’or 'on'. In my experience, the reasons for this are threefold; firstly, prepositions do not always have a literal meaning, or if they once did, it has now become obscure. For example, to ‘look up a word’ doesn’t have anything to do with moving upwards or increasing, it means to check the meaning of a word in the dictionary. Secondly, prepositions may translate differently, or not at all, from the speaker’s own language. Thirdly, the sheer number of prepositional phrases and dependent prepositions is overwhelming for learners of English.
Bearing these obstacles in mind, I offer three separate but interrelated pieces of advice to my students. The first is to forget the ‘literal’ meaning of the preposition – unless it actually helps you to remember which one to use. Similarly, it’s generally safer to forget direct translations. Moving away from translation also avoids adding unnecessary prepositions. Finally, treat prepositions as vocabulary rather than grammar by learning them as part of the words they go with, for example, ‘what did you see on television?’ This grouping of words to form ‘lexical chunks’ is known as collocation and it’s how native speakers learn which prepositions to use where. And once you’ve learnt one chunk you can then group it with similar examples such as on the internet, on screen, on Facebook… This technique also makes it easier to learn the exceptions, so for example I teach elementary classes the pattern and exception ‘in the morning’, ‘in the afternoon’, ‘in the evening’, ‘AT night’. Sooner or later, the correct usage becomes second nature.
So, if you’re a native speaker I hope my tip has highlighted just how tricky prepositions are for those whose first language is not English, and if you’re a student or teacher I hope it helps you to learn or teach them more effectively.
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