Long long ago in a galaxy far far away, there was no spoken language to speak of, no incorrect grammar, just cavemen making growling noises to express what they were feeling or what they wanted from the one another. Then one day someone decided to create language (English of course ha ha), and from then on we have been divided and segregated based on the language and dialects we speak.
So, I guess you’re asking yourself what does that have to do with anything. The reason I say this is because I would like to find this ancient language pioneer and ask them the same question all my students ask me… “What the hell were you thinking when you invented prepositions??” And so the journey of the preposition begins here.
Using Prepositions in English
Have you ever wondered why in English there are so many prepositions? It seems useless right? Looking at this from a Portuguese perspective it can be quite confusing and frustrating e.g. He has a red shirt on, She was driving around, what are you looking for? etc. As you can see they’re everywhere, whether they’re being used as a phrasal verb or just to complement the verb.
Let me start off by clearing up a grammatical myth. As some people say it’s grammatically incorrect to finish a phrase or sentence with a preposition, but that’s not entirely true. In some situations it is necessary to finish the phrase with a preposition or else the way we speak would sound old fashioned e.g. At what are you looking? From where are you? That sounds kind of strange right? It sounds like a line from Shakespeare, or something that Master Yoda would say.
So let’s start off with some common associations we should memorize just to warm up:
ON- (anything that’s in contact with a surface) T.V., the internet, the street , road, avenue.
IN – (Anything that’s inside some kind of barrier) Neighborhoods, Cities, countries, my office/house.
AT- ( Places in general ) the park, school, McDonalds. Also used for time, lunch is at 12 o’clock
As I mentioned earlier we have those dreaded things in English called Phrasal verbs, which is a verb followed by a preposition. Here’s a site with an extensive list of common phrasal verbs.
In some cases a phrasal verb can be literal and other cases they are idiomatic. Unfortunately for you my padawan, mastering the idiomatic ones is just a matter of memorization, while the literal ones can be quite easy to use and they make your English sound so much smoother and articulate. Let’s take a look.
On / Off
The preposition ON applies to anything that’s in contact with a surface, on the table/shelf/my head (clothes in general) so depending on the verb we use, what we say becomes more informative. This is when we start using the opposite prepositions, the opposite of on is what? Off. A lot of my students (Portuguese speakers) tend to always use the phrasal verb fall down for every situation, but this is just describing the direction that the object fell. Due to the laws of gravity down is the only option, I would like to go into outer space one day just so I could say I fell up.
Another one is to fall from, again this is 100% correct, the cup fell from the table but in English I would always be more descriptive. This is when we use the opposite preposition with a verb to describe exactly how the cup fell off the table, e.g. it slid off, got knocked off, rolled off. We can use any verb that is the most suitable in describing exactly how the object fell. The same is possible for any situation where the object is on something:
I was walking down the street the other day and the wind blew my hat off, your hat in on your head.
“Hey Josh can you grab that book off the shelf for me, buddy?” I think you’re getting the idea.
In / Out
So in that case the same thing applies for in, which means the opposite is out. Using out with any verb you think is appropriate for the situation.
My friend got some gum in her hair, what did I do? I could describe that in many ways:
I gently picked it out, I quickly pulled it out, I ripped it out in one go.
The guy was so bored he walked out of the cinema, he strolled out, he ran out, he jumped out. You decide how it happened but we are always going to use out because he was in the cinema.
These phrasal verbs I’m using are literal. You may have noticed that the literal phrasal verbs can usually be separable which means we put the object in the middle, e.g. to pull out the gum or to pull the gum out, it’s all the same.
I think it’s important to mention the preposition around. I’ve noticed a lot of my students ignore this one.
For example: “I saw Justin walking around in the city the other day.” Why around? In this case around means that he wasn’t doing anything specific or walking in any clear direction. This applies in other situations like the woman’s hair is blowing around in the wind, the dog keeps smelling around, I’m going to shop around until I find exactly what I’m looking for. Around tells us that there is no specific direction or place where the action is happening.
There’s another one right there, the phrasal verb looking for. This is when they start to get more idiomatic which unfortunately you’ll just have to memorize. I’m sorry but no Jedi mind tricks can help you out here. So go grab yourself a phrasal verb dictionary and keep up to date with the Real Life English website as we will be updating it with useful links to other great online resources as we find them. To help out other real lifers feel free to add any good links you find to our facebook community page.
Using prepositions is an ongoing battle for all English learners and I know that I have only touch the surface in this post, but keep an eye out as the saga of the preposition will continue. The preposition will strike back.
So long real lifers, and may the fluency be with you.
More to come soon on this topic. If you found this article helpful, we greatly appreciate your feedback, participation, likes, sharing and telling your friends about us. If you haven’t already, join the free and open Real Life English Facebook Community and join our mailing list. And of course, we hope to see you at our next Real Life English Event!
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