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Using Prepositions Correctly

English prepositions are a problem for many nonnative speakers. Here are some tips to help:

1. Learn to look up the word when you're not sure.
An excellent dictionary that lists the correct preposition to use with a verb, noun, or adjective is Random House Webster's Dictionary of American English: An ESL Dictionary, Random House, 1997 (list price, US$16.95).
For instance, for succeed, this book lists "+ in + obj/verb-ing" and gives the example We succeeded in our efforts to start the car.

2. Read regularly and make notes on any expressions with prepositions that differ from what you might have written.

3. If the problem is severe and might affect your career, get help.
For instance, we offer a low-cost individual editing service via e-mail. By getting constant feedback and explanations from us, you will quickly eliminate your special error patterns without much effort.



Some Common Prepositions and Their General Meanings


Even without looking up correct usage in a dictionary, you can often guess the right prepositions if you know their general meaning. The following list can help you with this.

at
1. Showing a point or location in space or time or on a scale.
    Examples: We met at a restaurant. I'll see you at nine o'clock. The temperature of the water was at the boiling point.
2. Showing an amount or degree.
    Examples: He walked at great speed. He drove at a speed of 85 mph.
3. Showing a direction or goal.
    Examples: He looked at his watch. We aimed at completion in December.

by
Showing nearness, cause, or agent.
Examples: He left his briefcase by the door. He was frightened by the loud noise. The rates are regulated by the central bank.

for
1. Showing how or why something is used, or for whom something is done. 
    Examples: This folder is for recent reports. He was honored for his achievements in molecular biology. I have a present for you.
2. Showing how long something happens: 
    He is going to Russia for five days.
3. Showing direction: 
    This is the train for New York. [Note the implied purpose: for = for going to]

in
1. Showing inclusion of an object or action in another object, place, activity, occupation, etc. 
    Examples: They took a walk in the city. The computer is in the closet. He was the inspector in the play. He worked in advertising.
2. Showing the general time of an action.
    Examples: I'll see you in May. They started the company in 1998.

Note that in referring to place or time, in is more general and less specific in its meaning than at or on. Thus: in America [a larger boundary] vs. on Fifth Avenue or at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Time: in June [a larger time boundary] vs. on June 23 or at three o'clock.

3. Replacing into: showing motion or direction from outside to a point within: Go in the kitchen. Put the ham in the refrigerator.


into
Showing direction of an object or action so that it becomes included in another object, place, activity, occupation, etc.
Examples: He took the plates into the kitchen. He went into the city. I want to get into advertising.

of
1. Showing connection, part, or amount: 
    He's the father of Alex. The rear wheels of the car skidded. I would like half a pound of boiled ham.
2. Denoting the object of an action or state expressed by a verb or adjective. 
    Examples: I didn't think of that. I am proud of that. She was tired of explaining the procedure.
    My boss is afraid of flying.

on
1. On top, touching, or being in a position in space or time. 
    Examples: The book is on the table. He was on the Planning Committee. The house is on Fifth Avenue.
    I'll see you on Monday. He will arrive on May 7.
2. On often replaces onto to show movement or position, as in He got on the train or He put the book on the table.
3. On commonly replaces about, as in I am reading an article on thermodynamics.

to
Movement or action toward something else.
Examples: He suggested to me that we go inside. [The suggestion was an action directed toward me.] He went to the door.

with
1. Showing participation, cooperation. 
    Examples: I went with him to the theater. He fought with his brother. He works with his father.
2. Showing the means or instrument. 
    Examples: He hit him with a rock. He bored the audience with a long anecdote.
3. Showing the object of a feeling or behavior. 
    Examples: I was angry with him. He had to be firm with the students.


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