Don’t Take Prepositions So Literally!

Prepositions are “function” words, which means they have a grammatical purpose but not much meaning.

Syelle Graves, Writing for
7-minute read
Episode #533

don't take prepositions literally

Recently, we talked about whether to use the preposition by or on before the word accident, and we discovered that sometimes, the preposition that people use is based on how old they are or where they live. There were some interesting comments below that article about preposition-choice rules, like Charlie M. from Utah, who wrote, “You're in bed when you're under the covers, otherwise you're on the bed. You suffer with a friend who suffers from (because of) a disease.” And, “Let… errors be errors, please!” wrote reader Carrie C. from Canada.

Reader Marge O. from Texas, on the other hand, once commented: “In trying to learn French and Spanish, I found the prepositions the biggest stumbling blocks. And they are behind most of the errors I hear when a non-native speaks English.” 

Boy, is she right! The truth is that although many people feel that prepositions should be used logically, they seldom are; they are rather memorized and used uniformly by convention, in arbitrary ways. While in math we can pretty much learn to add five to a number and then extend that addition process to other numbers, languages have a lot of exceptions, and, they change over time (in fact, English years ago had far fewer prepositions to begin with, and expressed word relationships by changing the word ending, instead!). 

What Is a Preposition?

The part of speech we call a “preposition” refers to words that are often small, and indicate spatial (that’s location) and temporal (that’s time) relationships between other words. Some high-frequency examples in English are with, to, for, around, about, and on.

Some temporal prepositions can also serve as adverbs (which makes sense, because adverbs often modify verbs, and verbs are often actions, with a time component). For example, in the sentence Jen ran around the building, around is a preposition, and the building is the object of the preposition. Around indicates the relationship between the running action and the building. However, in the sentence Jen runs around all day, around is an adverb (also called a “particle” in some contexts), modifying the running action. 

You can read more about prepositions here and here.

Why Can’t We Create Rules about Which Preposition to Use?

To understand this, let’s talk more about arbitrariness, one of the most fundamental characteristics of all human languages. It works like this: The relationship between the form (the sound) and meaning of a word is arbitrary. The word arbitrary means that a relationship is random, rather than chosen because of a particular reason or system. In contrast, an arrow-shaped symbol is non-arbitrary; it was chosen because it clearly looks like what it means, in any language: to point in a direction. Convention may have strengthened this association over time, but the general act of pointing to something is chosen for non-arbitrary reasons. 

The word apple, on the other hand, does not sound anything like what the sweet fruit with a core and a stem looks like or tastes like. Words possess meaning by convention only, and that’s why you usually can’t guess the meanings of words in a language you don’t know. It’s what makes languages different from each other! If language were not arbitrary, only one could exist.

How Do Speakers Choose Which Word to Use?

Most of the time, in casual speech, we don’t really choose. Knowing a word is complex: It means you know its pronunciation, its meaning, maybe how to spell it, and usually how to modify it—in English, that could mean how to make it plural, if it’s a noun, or to put it into past tense, if it’s a verb. More than that, as a fluent speaker, you know what sorts of words may come before it and after it. For example, with apple, you know that the can come before it, but not after it. You know this unconsciously, especially if you learned English as a child.

How about which preposition to use? Well, think of the preposition by in the expression by the way—it has no meaning at all, but when it comes before the way, fluent English speakers know exactly what it means and how to use it. You also can’t exchange it for some other preposition if you want to be understood. Expressions like that are often called “collocations” by linguists and language teachers: They are words that are used in a chunk to mean a certain thing, and they are used in the same order every time. That’s why in English, fluent speakers know to say “salt and pepper” in that order. However, in French, it’s the other way around, like this: poivre et sel! On the other hand, we always say “black and white”… and actually, the French do, too! Noir et blanc. Memorizing these ordered expressions can help learners of any language speak more fluently, and be better understood.

Defining What a Preposition “Means” Is Practically Impossible

Prepositions are “function” words, which means they have a grammatical purpose but not much meaning (“content” words like dress and happiness have a lot more meaning, and are easier to define. Read more about this distinction here.) Yet, each preposition can have many different functions. For example, to teach an English learner what in and on mean, you could draw a box and put a dot inside it, and a dot above it, to illustrate the concepts. But, can you always use in for that meaning? Not at all. Sometimes, the preposition inside works better, or sounds more natural. Sometimes, both are equal: You can say “Come inside! It’s cold!” or “Come in! It’s cold!” with no penalty. (Another example is "The cat is inside the box," versus "The cat is in the box.") And, metaphorical uses are even more difficult to predict, such as the in in Frank arrived just in time (yet, we can also say “Frank arrived on time”). Also metaphorical is the in the expression I’m in a bind, an abstract expression that means “I feel stuck,” or “unable to solve a certain problem.”

When we look at other languages to compare (a useful technique linguists apply to gain perspective when making decisions about a language), we find more excellent evidence for the fact that we can’t apply logic to preposition choice. For example, the English prepositions at and to feel totally different to us, right? You may say that at is used when something already is somewhere, but to is used to indicate direction. Yet, in French they are just one single preposition: à

However, don’t draw the conclusion from this that English contains more subtlety than French. The opposite preposition mix-match exists too. For example, French has two words for our preposition in: dans and en. One is used more for physical space, like I am in the kitchen (Je suis dans la cuisine), and to indicate the amount of time before something starts, like I’ll be there in five minutes (J’arrive dans cinq minutes). The other is used to indicate the duration of action, like I read the article in five minutes (J’ai lu l’article en cinq minutes). It may seem more or less useful to have two separate words, but really, no one has a problem speaking a language with only one in or only one to/at. We understand each other by context, and by using language as we have learned it is conventionally spoken. Plus, like reader Marge noticed, this shows us one of the reasons learning a foreign language is difficult for adults: Prepositions don't translate directly into other languages with any regularity. 

What Is a Language Error?

So, when we hear preposition varieties used by large groups of native speakers, we can’t call them “errors.” As we saw in the article about by accident, on accident just feels right for some people, meaning that they have used it, and heard it over the course of their lives. Now, imagine if someone said “I did it for accident.” That would be an error—something maybe someone learning English could say. It constitutes an error by linguists’ standards because, for one thing, it is unclear what the speaker means, exactly; for another, for accident is probably not a preposition-plus-noun combo that any English speaker would say feels right. (Side note: For standardized writing, of course, there are some rules we follow to be clear, consistent and more or less formal. However, writing is not the same as spontaneous speech, in that it is planned ahead of time and edited.) 

You can click here to read an earlier piece with another example: It’s about how there is no particular reason to choose preposition with instead of to following the word talk because the to doesn’t literally mean that the conversation is one-sided. So sometimes, two different prepositions can be interchangeable in a sentence. In other words, you can take prepositions seriously, but don’t take them too literally!

The takeaway is this: When we hear a discrepancy over something like which preposition people use for which thing, using logic to choose one doesn’t work, because human language isn’t always neat and even, and it changes over time and across regions. The “right” preposition is the one used by the speakers: the one we have figured out over time will allow us to be understood. One preposition may feel like it would be more logical for us to use in a certain expression or with a certain verb, but as individuals, we really don’t get to decide how living languages behave. How they behave is decided for us, unpredictably, over time, as the speech community talks and listens.

Or, as linguist Geoffrey Pullum recently blogged: “You arrive at or in a place, not to a place, but you welcome someone to a place. That's just the way it is. Nobody… guaranteed that languages would be easy or fair or logical or commonsensical. They are simply as they are. Deal with it. And that's deal with it; *deal to it and *deal on it are ungrammatical. Don't complain to me: I didn't invent English; my job is simply to describe it.”

This article was written by Syelle Graves, who has two master's degrees in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a PhD in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). She was also a 40 under Forty alumni award honoree at SUNY New Paltz. You can find her at syellegraves.com.