The fascinating history of English prepositions and a secret weapon to find the right one.
Over and over again, students who are learning English tell me how difficult it is for them to learn prepositions. They ask questions such as “Am I in a restaurant or at a restaurant?” It’s frustrating, but I have to tell them that both are OK. In some circumstances the phrases can have different meanings (e.g., if you are waiting for someone outside a restaurant, you are at the restaurant, not in the restaurant; but if you are inside, you can be both in or at Denny’s.)
History of Prepositions
Prepositions have a fascinating history in English, and to understand where they come from, it helps to understand the concept of inflection. An inflection is a bit that’s added to the beginning, middle, or end of a word to convey additional meaning. For example, the apostrophe-s in English is an example of an inflection—it marks possession. Cole’s pen means the pen belongs to Cole. Maybe your native language has inflectional endings that serve the same role that many prepositions do in English. Serbian, German, and many Native American languages, for example, are more inflected than English. (Latin is also highly inflected.)
It turns out that Old English was an inflected language. The word endings conveyed meaning, but during the transition to Middle English, nearly all the inflections were lost. Nobody knows why for certain, but scholars speculate it has to do with the difficulty of hearing the differences in pronunciation between similar endings such as -on, -en, and -an; and the interactions between English speakers and the Vikings who spoke Old Norse.
When English lost its inflectional endings, people still had to convey the meanings that the inflectional endings provided, so during the Middle English period, people gradually started using prepositions instead. For example, according to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL), “where Old English would have said þæm scipum, with a ‘dative’ ending on both the words for the and ship, Middle English came to say “to the shippes,” using a preposition and the common plural ending.”