There are over 150 prepositions in English, so it’s no surprise that we sometimes confuse them, although only 70 of these prepositions are used on a daily basis in spoken / written English. Still, that’s a lot of prepositions! Prepositions are important as they show the relationship between people, objects, and places. This blog lesson will look at common preposition mistakes and is aimed at students learning English at Intermediate (B1+) level or above.

1. ‘in’ or ‘at’ (for places)

We hear and see many mistakes with these two. However, there’s a trick to remembering them. Notice how at is used for a point and in is used for inside places.

  • I’m at work in my office. (work is the point; the office is inside the building)
  • He’s waiting for you at the cinema. He’s in the lobby, waiting to buy some popcorn. (the cinema is the point; the lobby is inside the cinema)

Common uses of at include the station, the doctor’s, the shop, school, home, work, university. We often use in for countries and cities, such as Malta, England, Paris, New York.

2. ‘to’ (for travelling)

Look at these three sentences:

  • I’m going to France next week.
  • Bill has never been to
  • Tania came back / returned to Paris last night.

Notice the preposition to in all 3 sentences – Many people make the mistake of using in instead. Generally, we use the preposition to with verbs like ‘go’, ‘come’, ‘return’, ‘have / has / had been’ (perfect forms of ‘to be’) to talk about travelling and going to places. Keep in mind that with places like home and words like inside / outside, upstairs / downstairs we don’t use to:

  • Michael went outside for a cigarette. (not ‘Michael went to outside for a cigarette.’)
  • Tina came back home earlier than usual. (not ‘Tina came back to home earlier than usual.’)

3. Misusing ‘of’

A common mistake is ‘It depends of…’. The correct preposition here should be ‘It depends on …’. Try and think of other verbs that take on. Common verbs include focus, rely, work and based.

  • It depends on whether I’m tired or not.
  • Tonight, I’m going to focus on the vocabulary I learned in class.
  • Even though we’re older now, my brother and I still rely on each other.
  • The latest movie is based on the last book.

4. Prepositions for comparisons

When we compare people, objects or places, we can use functional word phrases such as ‘…be the same as…’, ‘…be different from…’ and ‘…be similar to…’. Notice the prepositions highlighted in bold.

  • This house is the same as the last one.
  • My T-shirt is different from
  • Maria’s phone is similar to

5. Talking about ability

When talking about ability, with adjectives like good, great, amazing, bad, terrible, useless, hopeless we generally use at, NOT in. These are some example sentences using these adjectives:

  • I am really good at speaking English. (not ‘I am really good in speaking English.’)
  • John is really bad at (not ‘John is really bad in sport.’)
  • They’re useless at playing football. (not ‘They’re useless in playing football.’)

6. Talking about fears

When talking about fears, with adjectives like afraid, scared, wary, terrified we generally use the preposition of, NOT from. Here are some example sentences using these adjectives:

  • Mia is really scared of (not ‘Mia is really scared from spiders.’)
  • I’m absolutely terrified of (not ‘I am absolutely terrified from snakes.’)

7. ‘for’ or ‘since’

When using the present perfect to talk about actions / states that started in the past and continue up to present time, you might need to use a time phrase to show how long the action lasted. A common mistake here is the incorrect use of for or since. Have a look at the following sentences:

  • I’ve been a teacher at Maltalingua for 3 years
  • I’ve been a teacher at Maltalingua since

The two sentences have the same meaning, but for describes the duration of time, while since shows the point in time when the action began. We use for with phrases like ten years, ages, a while, some time, and we use since with phrases like 2015, last month, the beginning of the year, I got married.

  • We’ve had this cat for
  • I haven’t studied basic mathematics for a while, this is going to be challenging!
  • I haven’t driven down this road for some time.
  • James has been working as a part-time shop assistant since last month.
  • I’ve lived in London since the beginning of the year.
  • We haven’t taken out these old photos since we got married, this will be fun!

8. Talking about work

We can use a variety of prepositions with the verb work, like in, for, as, with. Look at this example sentence:

  • I’ve been working as a teacher for the last 3 years. I work for Maltalingua, in a school. I work with my colleagues and with students of course.

Notice how we use as to talk about my job, for to talk about the company, in to talk about the place / building and with to describe the people you come into contact with every day.

9. Talking about times of the day

Don’t forget that we use in for the morning, the afternoon and the evening but at for night. For example:

  • I wake up in the morning.
  • I eat lunch in the afternoon.
  • I watch TV in the evening.
  • I go to bed at

10. Talking about modes of transport

When going from place to place, we normally use by for most modes of transport. The exception is when you describe walking, because you go on foot.

  • I go to work by
  • We’re travelling by
  • He’s getting to Italy by
  • James went to visit his grandmother on

Extra tip!

Similar to the problem with by and on in Tip 10, keep in mind that we say by one’s self and on one’s own.

  • I’m here by
  • I’m here on my own.

Now that you have a better understanding of prepositions and their uses, if you have any comments, tips or tricks on how you learn and memorise prepositions, please feel free to leave a comment below. Make sure to check out our videos for a fuller explanation, given by our CELTA-qualified teachers.

Discover more of Maltalingua’s free English lessons. Explore more about substantive nouns here.

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