Secrets to Using Prepositions in English

I’m sure you all probably know that the book is ON the table, but do you know exactly why we say “on” instead of ABOVE, or OVER, or another of the hundreds of prepositions that exist in English?

Using prepositions in English can be a big problem and they are so often misused by English learners. The English language actually uses prepositions in so many ways, and if you can master how to use them correctly, your English can become really natural and start to flow much more.

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In this article you are going to:

  • Learn how to use prepositions with situational reference
  • Help to remember them by learning the opposite prepositions
  • Understand how we use prepositions with verbs to start flowing and sound natural

Learning Prepositions with Situational Reference

When speaking English, every student is faced with trying to understand the 3 most common prepositions and how and when to use them. I’m sure if you’re a Brazilian and like funk music, you know that the book is always ON the table, but why is it on and how can I know when I should use it?

Let’s go through the 3 most common prepositions and look at exactly how you use them.

How the use ON

ON is used when something is making contact with a surface. The book is ON the table because the book is making contact with the surface of the table.

Other examples of how we use on in this way:

  • I live ON First street (my house is making contact with the street)
  • He has a green shirt ON (the shirt is making contact with my skin)
  • I saw it ON tv (the images are viewed on the surface of the television)

ON is also used for days; on Monday, On Friday, On the 20th of December, On my holiday etc.

How to use IN

IN is used to describe that something is physically INSIDE some kind of barrier or borderaustralia_map

When I say I live IN Brazil, it’s because I am inside the Brazilian border.

Other examples using IN:

  • I used to live IN Australia (inside the Australian border)
  • I’m stuck IN traffic (inside the barrier of traffic)
  • I read it IN the newspaper (inside the closed paper)
    *we use ON for pages

IN is also used with months and years; in December, in 2011

How to use AT

AT is often used to describe a place in general. This is by using the name of the place, not specifying your exact location.

A good example to see the difference is to say I am AT the mall, IN the sports shop.

Other examples of using at:

  • Bob is AT the bar drinking a beer (the place in general)
  • I found some money ON the ground AT the park (ground=surface, park=place)
  • I’m going to have lunch AT my grandma’s house today (the place)

AT is also used for talking about the time; I have an appointment at 2 o’clock.

 Opposite prepositions

Before we move on to talking about how to use prepositions with verbs, it’s very important to learn the opposites to some common prepositions. You will understand why in the last part of this article.

*there are many more opposite prepositions but these are the most common

How to Use Verbs with Prepositions

If you have studied much English, then you will probably know about phrasal verbs and all those figurative expressions that exist when using prepositions with verbs. Today we are not going to talk about those figurative expressions, instead we are going to focus on the literal way to use verbs with prepositions. If you can start using these verbs + prepositions correctly, you’re going to see how much more your English will flow.

For example, imagine you are holding a cup of water IN your hand and suddenly, it falls. How would you describe that situation?

Most English learners, will just say “the cup fell,” which is absolutely correct. But if you wanted to say this more specifically, you can start to apply the use of opposite prepositions with the verb. I would say, “the cup fell OUT of my hand.” We say OUT because the original location of the cup was IN your hand, opposite preposition.

Let’s focus in some specific situations to help understand the use of opposite prepositions with verbs better. To understand this you must think of,

  1. The preposition for the original location of the object or person, or the preposition for the way the object or person is moving. For example, is the object IN your hand, ON the ground, ON TOP OF your house? Or, if the object in motion Towards, around, up, down etc…
  2. The verb (action) that describes how that object or person moved. So did the object or person fall, roll, blow, drive, ride?

Let me show you how to use this in a real situation:

1. You are riding a bike and wearing a hat. Because of the wind, your hat leaves your head. 

Original location – On my head
The action – The wind BLOWS

“The wind blew my hat off my head”

2. You are drinking some water and holding the cup in your hand. Suddenly, someone knocks you and the cup falls.

Original location – IN your hand
The action- To knock

“Some guy knocked the cup out of my hand”

3. You are at a park and there is a concert happening. You don’t want to walk through the park because you will disturb the show.

Original motion- Through
The action- Walk

“I decided to walk around the concert”

Around in this case means that you are avoiding the concert,


Using prepositions in this way is extremely common in English. If you really want to sound more natural when you speak, start using more verbs with prepositions.

Think about what you are doing right now. Are you reading ON your computer? Are you sitting ON a chair? Maybe you’re ON your smart phone or tablet travelling THROUGH the city, walking UP a hill or leaning AGAINST a wall.

Whatever you’re doing, I’m sure you can find a way to describe it using a verb preposition combination.

If you would like to find out more about this topic, or any other English related topics, don’t forget to sign up the the Real Life English mailing list where you’ll be informed with any new information, and receive our free 3 part mini course about our language learning methodology.

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  • Gustavo Igor says:

    Really Nice! Preposition Always pissesme off. hahah

  • mohamedramadan says:

    so good but can you tell us the secrets of English pronunciation also .Thanks

  • Interesting approach. Btw, what is more correct: stray animals in the streets of the city or on the streets?

  • Rawda Essam says:

    I LOVED this article, it’s hella dope and so useful as always (Y)
    Thank you Chad.

  • Chad Fishwick says:

    Thanks Rawda Essam Hejazy! I can see that you've been reading a little about Californian slang! Thanks for the doped message, for shizzle my dizzle! hahaha

  • Chad Fishwick says:

    Thanks Rawda Essam Hejazy! I can see that you've been reading a little about Californian slang! Thanks for the doped message, for shizzle my dizzle! hahaha

  • Fefo Haider says:

    Thanks amillion ifor beautiful information

  • Ali Baba says:

    Love seeing this article , waiting for another one 🙂

  • Phuong Thao says:

    Love u for all.
    it's so terrific and very useful.

  • Antônio Luciano says:

    I gotta add that the preposition at is used when we refer to a specific place in contex. Ex: I am at the mall. (Not any mall but the mall I am at). It's rather different to say: I'm in a mall.

  • […] Secrets to Using Prepositions in English […]

  • Kushagra Gupta says:

    that was really too helpful ….. thanks 🙂

  • Denise says:

    i loved.
    never before someone explained to me this way to see the prepositions. Now is not so complicated.
    thank you so much

  • Denise says:

    i loved.
    never before someone explained to me this way to see the prepositions. Now is not so complicated.
    thank you so much

  • Siva says:

    Very nice and informative article hope to see more of such articles …
    We love learning English ?

  • Guilherme C R says:

    Great explanation!