4 Reasons Prepositions in English Are Challenging

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Prepositions in English can be explained as anything a frog can do to a log. A frog can go over a log or under a log. The frog can be above a log or below the log. The frog can go to the log, and Superfrog can go through the log. Pretty simple, right?

It is for native English speakers. 

But for people learning English, prepositions are frequently used essential words that have little consistency, multiple meanings, and don’t always translate well from another language. In other words, they are small, confusing words that frequently confuse English learners.

English spelling is famously irregular, but spelling is not necessary for spoken English. Prepositions, however, are needed for listening and speaking. What follows are several reasons why teaching prepositions is challenging.

They are frequently used.

Prepositions are used to show the relationship between a noun (or pronoun) to another word or idea. They have little implicit meaning without the words in the relationship. For example, the word “on” means something different in the phrase “put the plate on the table” versus “turn the computer on.”

Imagine an English learner’s confusion after having learned that “on” means “in a position over something else” and then encountering this sentence:  

I love riding on the train. 

The average English speaker actively uses 20,000 words, and less than 200 of those are prepositions. So prepositions make up less than 1% of our vocabulary, but three prepositions—of, to, in—are among the 10 most commonly used English words. 

They have multiple meanings.

Prepositions in English notoriously have multiple meanings. For example, the preposition on has 10 primary definitions, and those 10 have secondary meanings. It serves as a function word to indicate that an object is on top of another surface. However, it also indicates position with an outer surface that is the opposite of on top, as in “there’s a fly on the ceiling.” A “village on the sea” is next to the water; a “bat feeds on insects” means the bat is dependent on insects for food, and “on the team” indicates that someone is part of something.

To add to the confusion, on can also function as an adverb or adjective, as in “rambled on” or “the game is on.” And some conjunctive adverbs, such as “in fact,” contain a preposition.

However, no preposition has as many definitions as the word “set.”  It has over 400, as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. So add set to the list of words bound to confuse an English learner.

They are short.

These nine prepositions are among those used most frequently:

with, at, by, to, in, for, from, of, on

Because they are short, it is often difficult for English learners to hear them. To understand spoken language, the listener needs to be able to distinguish words. Often, words bleed into each other. In the sentence “put the plate on the table,” a learner doesn’t need to hear the word on. If you’re standing next to a table and someone hands you a plate, wouldn’t you put it “on” the table?

Two-syllable prepositions do exist.  These include “between,” “against,” and “without.”  Those words are easier to spot, but they are not used as frequently.

They often do not translate well.

We know that idiomatic expressions often don’t translate well. The same is true with prepositions. For example, the expression “in love with someone” translated into Spanish becomes “enamorado de,” which translates into “I am in love of you.”

The sentence “I am disappointed in you” in German is “Ich bin von dir enttäuscht,” or I am from you disappointed.” Von can also mean “of” and “by.” “I am disappointed by you,” is close. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics for someone learning a language.

Bottom Line

If we grew up learning English, prepositions are second nature. Some English teachers force students to learn the types of prepositions during grammar lessons. After we ace the test, most of us (unless we teach English) never think about prepositions again. We use them as we always have. 

The same is not the case for foreign language learners, unfortunately.

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