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Why study prepositions?

In English, prepositions are frequently used to relate a noun or pronoun to another word or phrase in a sentence. They can establish different relationships:

Why are prepositions problematic?

Prepositions are problematic because:

  • over 90% of preposition use involves these nine prepositions: at, on, in, to, of, from, for, with, by. The same preposition is used to express a number of relationships as shown in the texts above, or even the same relationship e.g. in the morning, at noon, on Monday morning (prepositions of time). 
  • some can be used interchangeably e.g. He sat in the chair; He sat on the chair.
  • they combine with verbs to create phrasal verbs eg. put off, look after, look down, look up.
  • they combine with other words to form prepositional phrases, e.g. with regard to, in regard to, as regards, regardless of, on account of, according to, in spite of, in terms of.


Write an appropriate preposition to complete each of the following short texts.

On the twentieth of June, the newly-married couple flew to Auckland from Los Angeles, expecting to arrive in the City of Sails by lunchtime on the nineteenth. They wanted to drive to Wellington alone, but the best man insisted on coming with them. The large wedding gift from the groom's parents was placed on the roof of the car and secured with a rope.


2  Tim applied for a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Auckland earlier this year. His interest in medicine began many years ago when he was still in secondary school. The selection panel consists of eight professors from different faculties, including two from the School of Medicine.


3  The English Language Self-Access Centre (ELSAC) is located on the corner of Symonds Street and Alfred Street on Level 1 of the Kate Edger Building. The objective of ELSAC is to provide supported language learning and language enrichment to students of English as an additional language. At ELSAC, students can equip themselves with the fundamental tools of language to improve their skills in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. They can also participate in practical language activities and get advice on any aspect of language in one-to-one sessions. In addition, the ELSAC supports an e-learning environment which gives students access to many interactive language programmes and useful websites.


How to study prepositions

The most efficient method is to read prepositional phrases aloud until you can automatically produce them correctly.  Also, pay attention to how they are used in academic contexts in your discipline, but there are some guiding principles. The dictionary (especially an Advanced Learner's edition) is an excellent resource, giving information about their common and idiomatic uses.

Sometimes, visualising prepositions can help to clarify the relationships they express: 









Visual representations may also help you to use the correct preposition after a verb or noun, e.g.

              contribute to the success; is related to

              connect something to something; connect with other people

              drive through the tunnel; walk across the field

              have an impact on; to focus on; on the surface

              to go into a room; to jump off the building          

The same preposition may express different relationships, as the following classification chart shows:

Click here to view.

The opening sentences of U.S. President Obama's inaugural address contain 8 prepositions (about 15% of the text), which express these various relationships:

Manner Place Measure/Quantity Purpose Time Idiomatic use State/Condition Means/instrument

Drag the correct classifications from the left to complete the sentences below. 

1. The city is in a state of shock.


2. He won the award for his innovation.

3. He sold his car for $7,000 less than his asking price.

4. University students accounted for 20% of the votes.

5. She greeted her guests with great courtesy.

6. Riverton is situated on the banks of the Muse River.

7. He wrote his essay by hand.

8. The essay is due in the second week of the semester.


Fill in each blank with a suitable preposition of the classification given in brackets.

Example: We made an appointment at (time) 9 o'clock.

1    The shirt that I bought for (purpose) James was placed in (place) a gift box and tied with (means) a red ribbon.

2    The city was in (condition/state) a state of confusion.

3    He is on (condition/state) duty right now and should not be disturbed.

4    They drove for (quantity/measure) sixty kilometres without (manner) stopping. During (time) the whole journey, they drove through (place/direction) seven tunnels.

5    The package came by (means) special delivery.

6    She went to the city for (purpose) a sightseeing tour.

7    Individuals at all levels of an organisation need to be able to take responsibility for (idiomatic use) their decisions.

8    I am not at (condition/state) work right now but I will call you tomorrow. 

9    I left the document on (place) my desk in (place) my office. It is to be sent to (direction) the Head Office.

10  Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through (means) a kaleidoscope.

Some visual representations: at, in, on, into and of pose special problems because they can describe more than one relationship: time, place, purpose and idiomatic use in different contexts.  You may find these visual representations of some common prepositions useful:


'of' is common in expressions like 'the description of the process; the difficulties of learning a foreign language; the heart of the matter. In these contexts, the relationship between the noun before and after 'of' may be viewed as one of 'possession' or 'belonging'.

Use these simple representations to help you do the following practice exercises:

Fill in each blank with at, in, on, or of.

1. Walker to run against Boto

Walker hopes to run against James Boto of Kenya in a 1500 metres race in Paris on June 16th. Both men are on a mission to set a new world record. They will want to break Cliff Holding's world record. Holding ran the 1500 metres in 3 minutes 28 seconds last year. He will also be running in Seattle on June 14th, two days before the Paris encounter.

New Zealand fans have been hoping for several months to see Walker win back his record. He last ran against Boto in April, but he fell at the last hurdle of the race and hurt himself very badly. The two men had not met since the last Olympic Games in Atlanta, but two months after his accident, Walker was back in training at 7 o'clock on Saturday evening. After Paris, he hopes to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, which begin in Ottawa on August 14th. Walker is expecting to do well there because he has put a lot of time and training into his preparations for this event. 


2. New Zealand Cities

Wellington, which lies at the south end of the North Island, is an attractive city that has been built on the steep sides of a dormant volcano. Auckland is known as 'the City of Sails' because of the large number of yachties who sail their boats in the harbour and bays around Auckland, particularly on the weekends. Napier, also in the North Island, is a truly fascinating city. It was severely damaged in 1931 by a strong earthquake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and by the ensuing fire. The buildings were rebuilt in the style of the time, which was called 'Art Deco'. New Zealand's most easterly city, Gisborne, lies on the banks of three rivers: the Waiomata, the Taruheru and the Turanganui. Its main claim to fame is that it is the first city in the world to see the sun rise.

The city of Dunedin is situated on steep hills and is famous for having the steepest street in the southern hemisphere. Queenstown is the sports capital of New Zealand, at least as far as adventure sports, such as paragliding, rafting, and jetboating, are concerned. But Queeenstown is probably best known for the coal-powered steamboat, called the Earnslaw, which takes visitors out for cruises on the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. The town of Nelson, on the north coast of the South Island, is a very popular holiday centre because of its beautiful beaches. The largest city in the South Island and the third largest city in New Zealand is Christchurch. The city lies on the wide, flat Canterbury plain on the east coast of the South Island.

Source: Catt, C.(1995). New Zealand: A language survival kit. Auckland, NZ: Addison Wesley Longman.

Special Problems

Idiomatic use of prepositions

This refers to prepositions that commonly occur with certain adjectives, verbs or nouns. For example, we say 'impact on; focus on; contribute to; to be in danger, have confidence in yourself, look into a problem; good at Maths, look at a word, and so on.

Click for a a list of such collocations

Check in a dictionary often.

Fill in each blank with a suitable preposition.

1    This part of the law is only applicable to companies employing only five people.

2    It is a simple dish to prepare, consisting mainly of rice and vegetables.

3    Students are provided with electronic calculators for the examination.

4    These gangs are capable of creating havoc in the city.

5    The children were accustomed to a much easier lifestyle.

6    His paper was based on research conducted on chimpanzees two years ago.

7   The government approved of the latest plans for Auckland harbour.

8   The local people in this village still believe in superstitions.

9   The response to the Poppy appeal has been phenomenal.

10  The public responded generously  to the Poppy appeal

11  The public responded with a lot of enthusiasm.

12  Most people would agree that success in life has a lot of correlation with wealth.


Drag and Drop activity.

Drag an appropriate prepositional phrase from the list below and place it on the line. If your answer is correct, it will stay on the line. Hint: Think about the preposition at the beginning of each phrase that goes with the word in italics.

under the direction of a registered nurse with the activities of daily living in health consumers' conditions for directing and delegating interventions for their nursing actions with the consumer, family and multi-disciplinary teams

1 Enrolled nurses practise


2 Enrolled nurses assist health consumers


3 Enrolled nurses observe changes


4 The registered nurse is responsible


5 Enrolled nurses are accountable


6 They work in partnership


Prepositions after verbs

Select the correct preposition to complete each of the following sentences.

1  The government is investing time and money to deal with drug use in schools.

2  There is no such thing as a perfect home; it depends on the individual.

3  I said I could move the furniture myself, but she insisted on helping me.

4  George is involved in politics; he is the local councillor.

5  Many residents do not have much confidence in the new mayor.

6  Some of the tenants are angry about the lack of parking spaces in the area.

7  The people are suffering from malnutrition.

8  The staff are responsible to their boss.

9  The staff are responsible for the decisions they make.

10 Success in passing examinations depends on good time management and careful revision.

11 Everyone can benefit from a better road system.

Challenge Tasks

[Show answer]

Wrong prepositions and corrections in bold:

A [1]   arriving in New Zealand

B [3]   Between 1996 and 1998,..

C [4]   impact on New Zealand

E [6]   increase in tourist numbers

G [9]   information in Table 4

H [10] In this present era

I  [11] from Friday to Sunday

J  [12] instrument of teaching


Fill in the blanks with the correct preposition.

What makes a good leader? 

The leadership qualities that are required to make a good leader can vary in different companies, teams and situations. This can be illustrated in both art and modern leadership models. For example, the fact that leadership qualities are dependent on context is demonstrated in the play The Admirable Crichton and the film Twelve O'Clock High.

In The Admirable Crichton, written in 1902, the Lord and the butler swap their roles as leader and servant as the situation changes. On a desert island, the butler's practical skills are essential for survival, whereas the Lord's knowledge of English politics is of no value.

In the film Twelve O'Clock High, produced in 1949, as a squadron starts to suffer increasing losses during the war, the leader's people-oriented approach starts to fail. He is replaced by a dictatorial bully who turns the squadron round and restores their pride.

How one approaches leadership qualities will depend on whether one is looking at the subject from the perspective of an organisation or an individual.  Organisations aim to improve their performance by selecting and developing individual potential. At the outset, the needs of the organisation are usually well-defined but the individuals, who may become leaders, are unknown. The organisational task is therefore one of identifying the profile of people who will enhance organisational performance, selecting individuals whose character, skills and potential closely match that profile, and developing those individuals so their potential becomes a reality.  An individual's perspective, however, is very different: the aim is for the individual to develop into a position of leadership.

Modified from:

Write a suitable preposition to follow each noun or verb.

1.   Smoking is consistently linked to many other diseases, including bronchitis, larynx cancer, and pancreatic cancer. In the past decades, anti-smoking campaigns have focused on explaining long-term health risks. The success of these programmes will depend on smokers' attitudes.  A total solution to society's smoking problems will not come, however, until society's expectations change. The success of any anti-smoking campaign is attributed to education and a change in attitude.

2.    Moving to a foreign country is not easy for immigrants. They have to make many adjustments to their lives. The adults will be concerned with finding employment and a place to live as soon as possible. There will also be emotional costs which can often result in a considerable amount of stress.  The new settlers are often aware of the need to integrate into the community and to contribute to society, but at the same time it is in conflict with their desire to maintain their cultural identity. Their dependence on family and friends is also a constant source of stress for them.

3.   As the pace of change accelerates, there is naturally a greater need for effective leadership. Today there is an astounding array of books related to leadership in business. There has been an explosion of books, articles, instructional tapes, and CD-ROMs aimed at defining, analysing and honing the qualities of great leadership.


4. Drug use among young people

Drug use affects all school communities in New Zealand. It is associated with health risks, including injury, problem behaviours, depression and other risk-taking activities, and affects students' welfare and their ability to learn and achieve their full potential.

Problems arising from drug use among young New Zealanders are primarily associated with alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. While the use of these substances is evident in all communities in New Zealand, the extent of youth drug use is often portrayed in the media in sensational terms with the potential for popular myths to develop that may not reflect reality.

Data from secondary school students indicates that alcohol and tobacco use is commonplace and that many young people have been exposed to cannabis use. Recent results from Youth07 survey showed that 72% of students had tried alcohol and one-third reported that they had engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks in four hours). The survey also showed that, overall, secondary students' intake of substances such as alcohol, tobacco and cannabis had fallen in the period 2001-2007. Despite this encouraging trend, it is important to acknowledge that the incidence of drug use remains too high among young people in New  Zealand.


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