The fascinating history of English prepositions and a secret weapon to find the right one.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #381

Prepositions Are Some of the Most Common Words in English

Slowly, prepositions gained popularity in English, and today, they are some of the most common words we use. A 1992 study cited in CEEL determined that “of” was the second-most commonly used English word (after “the”). In addition, the top 50 also included the prepositions in, to, with, at, for, on, by, and fromA different study based on the British National Corpus and posted at About.com has of at number three, and includes a nearly identical list of prepositions in the top 50.  

Prepositions Are Hard to Pin Down

Perhaps because they’re so common, prepositions are notoriously hard to pin down. They often have multiple and overlapping meanings, as our “in the restaurant/at the restaurant” situation showed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has 10 different meanings for the preposition on. For example, on can describe being in contact with something (the book is lying on the table) or your participation in something (I’m on the team). CEEL notes that the preposition over can give a sense of position (the clock over the mantle), movement across (he climbed over the wall), and accompanying circumstances (we’ll talk over dinner). (Are you native English speakers feeling sorry for people trying to learn English yet?)

Further, prepositions are an area where there’s a lot of regional variation. People in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and possibly Philadelphia who are lined up for concert tickets are more likely to say they’re standing on line, whereas everywhere else in the United States, we’re more likely to say we’re standing in line. Both are grammatically correct; it’s just a regional difference. (1) There’s at least one generational difference in American English too. Older people are more likely to say something happened by accident whereas younger people are more likely to say something happened on accident. (2)

British English Versus American English

People speaking British English sometimes use different prepositions from people speaking American English too. In the US, we’d say something is different from (the standard) something else, or perhaps that something is different than something else (less acceptable, but still common), but in Britain, you might also hear that something is different to something else, which sounds very odd to American ears. (3) In US English, we’d say Bloomingdales is on 59th Street, but in Britain, they’d say Harrods is in Brompton Road. (4, 5, 6)

In South Asian English, people say they pay attention on something instead of pay attention to something, (7) and in Scottish English, people sometimes use from the way we’d use by. (8)


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