Over and over again, students who are learning English tell me how difficult it is for them to learn prepositions. They ask questions such as “Am I in a restaurant or at a restaurant?” It’s frustrating, but I have to tell them that both are OK. In some circumstances the phrases can have different meanings (e.g., if you are waiting for someone outside a restaurant, you are at the restaurant, not in the restaurant; but if you are inside, you can be both in or at Denny’s.)
History of Prepositions
Prepositions have a fascinating history in English, and to understand where they come from, it helps to understand the concept of inflection. An inflection is a bit that’s added to the beginning, middle, or end of a word to convey additional meaning. For example, the apostrophe-s in English is an example of an inflection—it marks possession. Cole’s pen means the pen belongs to Cole. Maybe your native language has inflectional endings that serve the same role that many prepositions do in English. Serbian, German, and many Native American languages, for example, are more inflected than English. (Latin is also highly inflected.)
It turns out that Old English was an inflected language. The word endings conveyed meaning, but during the transition to Middle English, nearly all the inflections were lost. Nobody knows why for certain, but scholars speculate it has to do with the difficulty of hearing the differences in pronunciation between similar endings such as -on, -en, and -an; and the interactions between English speakers and the Vikings who spoke Old Norse.
When English lost its inflectional endings, people still had to convey the meanings that the inflectional endings provided, so during the Middle English period, people gradually started using prepositions instead. For example, according to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CEEL), “where Old English would have said þæm scipum, with a ‘dative’ ending on both the words for the and ship, Middle English came to say “to the shippes,” using a preposition and the common plural ending.”
Prepositions Are Some of the Most Common Words in English
Slowly, prepositions gained popularity in English, and today, they are some of the most common words we use. A 1992 study cited in CEEL determined that “of” was the second-most commonly used English word (after “the”). In addition, the top 50 also included the prepositions in, to, with, at, for, on, by, and from. A different study based on the British National Corpus and posted at About.com has of at number three, and includes a nearly identical list of prepositions in the top 50.
Prepositions Are Hard to Pin Down
Perhaps because they’re so common, preposition are notoriously hard to pin down. They often have multiple and overlapping meanings, as our “in the restaurant/at the restaurant” situation showed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has 10 different meanings for the preposition on. For example, on can describe being in contact with something (the book is lying on the table) or your participation in something (I’m on the team). CEEL notes that the preposition over can give a sense of position (the clock over the mantle), movement across (he climbed over the wall), and accompanying circumstances (we’ll talk over dinner). (Are you native English speakers feeling sorry for people trying to learn English yet?)
Further, prepositions are an area where there’s a lot of regional variation. People in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and possibly Philadelphia who are lined up for concert tickets are more likely to say they’re standing on line, whereas everywhere else in the United States, we’re more likely to say we’re standing in line. Both are grammatically correct; it’s just a regional difference. (1) There’s at least one generational difference in American English too. Older people are more likely to say something happened by accident whereas younger people are more likely to say something happened on accident. (2)
British English Versus American English
People speaking British English sometimes use different prepositions from people speaking American English too. In the US, we’d say something is different from (the standard) something else, or perhaps that something is different than something else (less acceptable, but still common), but in Britain, you might also hear that something is differentto something else, which sounds very odd to American ears. (3) In US English, we’d say Bloomingdales is on 59th Street, but in Britain, they’d say Harrods is in Brompton Road. (4, 5, 6)
In South Asian English, people say they pay attention on something instead of pay attentionto something, (7) and in Scottish English, people sometimes use from the way we’d use by. (8)
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 Viewerand 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.