One of the trickier aspects of English is mastering the proper use of prepositions. When someone new to English is listening to a native speak the language, certain words stand out and others get lost in the babble. The words that stand out are most likely nouns and verbs. You can hear words like “dog” and “ran,” and pronouns like “it,” and get the general gist of the sentence. But what are all those other words you hear rushing past your ears? Those wispier words that seem to pad the more important words are articles (a, the) and prepositions (to, from, on, in, at). Last week I covered how to use articles, so today I’m going to talk about prepositions.
The sober fact is that the only way to master prepositions is to practice English until the knowledge of how to use these weird little words becomes rote memory.
Generally speaking, prepositions come after a noun (or a pronoun) and indicate the relationship the noun has to the rest of the sentence. For example: Joe is at his computer.
Joe (noun) is at (preposition) his computer.
In the above sentence, “at” is used to describe Joe when he is sitting in front of his computer. The computer might not even be turned on, but he is “at” it.
We could also say: Joe is on his computer.
The use of the preposition “on” in this sentence implies that Joe is actively working on his computer. The difference between this sentence and the previous sentence is very subtle, but a fluent English speaker will pick up on that difference. Knowing when to use “on” versus “at” (or “in” for that matter) is something that only comes with repeated usage. The good news is that the meaning of the sentence can usually be understood, regardless of which preposition you use. But to sound like a native speaker, the proper use of prepositions is crucial.