The fascinating history of English prepositions and a secret weapon to find the right one.
My Secret Preposition Weapon
With all this diversity and confusion, what’s a writer to do, especially when he or she doesn’t have a natural feel for the language?
Here’s my secret weapon: Google Books Ngram Viewer. Using this tool, you can see the frequency of phrases in books that Google has scanned--millions of books, many of which went through an editing process, which means they’re more representative of Standard English than a plain old Google Internet search.
If you aren’t sure whether you should write “We were in the restaurant,” or “We were at the restaurant,” you can search for those phrases and see that although both are in use, “in the restaurant” is a bit more common. If you’ve heard people say both “on accident” and “by accident,” and you’re confused, you can plug those words into the Google Ngram Viewer and see that “by accident” is far more common—it’s still the phrase that’s considered Standard English.
You can even limit your search to American English or British English to get a better answer for the particular place you live.
The bottom line is that if you’re learning English, you’re going to have to memorize a lot of prepositions and deal with things that don’t always make sense or questions that don’t always have answers, but you too can use the Google Books Ngram Viewer as a secret weapon and most of the time you can find an answer to the “which preposition should I use” question.
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