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Prepositions

Ms Parrot: With a Revolver in the Library



Download the text of this explanation as a pdf or Word document. You can also see the video story on youku and download the exercises as a pdf or Word document. Here is a list of prepositions in academic English. And here is the text of the video story in pdf or Word format.

Prepositions are small words that show a relationship between one word and another word in English. They may not exist in another language, or they may be used differently.

Banana in bowlFor example, we can say ‘The banana is in the bowl' in this picture, even though it is not actually in the bowl but is sitting on top of the other fruit. We can say ‘in the bowl' because we think of the banana as part of the whole collection of fruit, not as a separate item.

In English, we often see things as concepts and do not examine them literally. That means we can use many prepositions in academic writing.

For example, we can talk about an essay on chocolate. Perhaps we think of the essay as sitting on the topic of chocolate.

Chocolate essay

We use on because it is the basis for something.

Here are the prepositions most commonly used in academic writing, with some explanations for their use:

about - around something or enclosing something
at - connected to a location
for - with a purpose or giving a reason
from - the origin of something
in - completely or partly enclosed by something
of - belonging to something or someone; contained in something
on - the basis for something
to - in a direction
with - connected to something and near something; using something

Often there are clues that tell us which preposition to use. For example,

in often follows a word with the prefix in or en - involved in; instructing us in; engaging them in.

The preposition with often follows a word with the prefix com or con.

You also need to consider whether to match your preposition to the word before it or the word after it.

e.g. The thesis concentrated on works by contemporary authors.

Here, the preposition on follows the verb concentrated. It does not match the noun works. If we rewrite the sentence, we might need a different preposition:

e.g. You can see this in works by contemporary authors.

Here, the preposition in goes with the noun works because the verb see does not require a preposition.

Some verb + preposition combinations are called ‘phrasal verbs’. These verb + preposition combinations are difficult to understand, because the meaning is often hard to guess from the individual words. For example, write up means finish.

  • The prepositions song

    In the prepositions song  in the video, we can see different uses of prepositions, all from Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List:

    An essay on statistics
    Involved in linguistics -
    How do prepositions work and how can we be sure of them?
    I’ve heard on good authority
    In English the majority
    Of people think that prepositions are too hard to learn.

    Research inPrepositions song
    Language that’s
    Relevant for paragraphs.
    Theories about
    Strategies for
    Linking nouns and verbs.
    If you’re writing up a
    Sentence about
    Photographs and monographs,
    Then don’t forget
    The meaning of
    These tiny little words.

    Under, on or over,
    In or out or under,
    Many prepositions are not easy to discern.
    Instructing us in writing,
    Isn’t it exciting?
    These words add all the richness to the languages we learn.

  • Prepositions in the video story

    Here are the other sentences in the video that have prepositions. Nearly all the prepositions are taken from the Academic Word List, which means that you will often see them in academic writing:

    Harumi in libraryHarumi was looking for a book on Australian cooking

    a book of Australian recipes, in fact.

    She had been to a lecture on local cuisine

    and she was involved in an experimental cooking group.

    The criteria for membership were that you had to enjoy cooking and you had to be a professional chef.

    She felt very positive about this

    and had consulted her employer about trying some new recipes.

    Harumi's been shotHarumi's been shot - with a revolver

    - in the library.

    I saw her go into the library.

    There's no one but us in the house.

    The murderer must be someone in this room!

    We all had access to it.

    It belongs to Prince Wolfgang,

    and Kareena was looking at it.....Kareena looking at gun

    and Prince Wolfgang has a certificate in shooting.

    I can't think of any motive for killing her.

    Harumi was an expert in the kitchen.

    Quite a contrast to the chef they had last year.

    Harumi never imposed her ideas on us,

    and she nearly converted me to Japanese cooking!

    But she never lectured me about it.

    Gordon defends himselfI suppose she had the odd publication on cooking.

    She was the author of many books about cooking!

    She must have had an enormous impact on Japanese cooking

    in Australia.

    Well, let's not rely on rumours.

    The bulk of her work was not that good.

    She had a wonderful attitude to cooking.

    Prince Wolfgang confined himself to soup.

    Harumi had to substitute sorbet for ice cream for my dessert.

    She was very understanding about it, though.

    Two of us had meals that were adapted to our dietary needs.

    But I'm only aware of one person who didn't enjoy their meal.Ms Parrot accusing

    There was an interval of ten minutes

    between the time we finished dinner and the time you joined us.

    Not enjoying a meal is not a motive to kill someone.

    You and Harumi both published widely in the area of cooking.

    You both did research on Asian cooking in Australia.

    Last year you both contributed to a new cookery book,

    but she wrote five chapters on Japanese cuisine,

    and you only wrote a paragraph on

    the art of cutting potatoes.

    Prof G with gun

    She had recently replaced you as President of the Academy of Celebrity Chefs.

    she was a great challenge to your career.

    You never really recovered from the shock of her success.

    I'd like to apologise on behalf of everyone here, Gordon.

    I'm not biased towards anyone,

    but you must admit that someone who doesn't enjoy learning about grammar is a bit suspicious!

  • Dictionaries and concordancers

    A good way to check which preposition to use is to consult an English learner’s dictionary. Here are some links: Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, the Macmillan English Dictionary, Merriam Webster's Learner's Dictionary and the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

    AdtatAnother good way to check prepositions is to use a concordancer. A concordancer is a computer program that searches the uses of a word in a corpus (a collection of texts). There is a good free concordancer at the University of Adelaide. It is called AdTAT, and it has clear instructions about how to use it and how to make your own corpus. You could make a corpus of articles in your subject area and then check it in the concordancer to see how prepositions are used.

  • Cognitive linguistics – for advanced grammar lovers

    Cognitive linguistics gives some excellent explanations for prepositions. Some terms that are important are:

    subject (Lindstromberg, 2010), figure (Talmy (in Tyler & Evans, 2003) and Brala, 2002), trajector (Langacker, 2010), target (Vandeloise, 1991)

    and

    ground (Talmy (in Tyler & Evans, 2003) and Brala, 2002), landmark (Lindstromberg, 2010, Langacker, 2010 and Vandeloise, 1991)

    e.g. The computer (= subject, figure, trajector, target) is on the desk (= ground, landmark).

    In a cognitive linguistics approach, we do not link actual objects with prepositions; instead, we link our conceptions of objects (Brala, 2002).  However, when learning prepositions, it is often useful to learn a literal meaning first and then apply it to a non-literal (figurative) meaning (Boers & Demecheleer, 1995, p. 203).

    We tend to position things in terms of what we are more likely to know or to locate (Vandeloise, 1991). We would therefore say The word is on page ten but probably not Page ten contains the word. This is because we can locate page ten more easily than a single word on that page.

    Sometimes we use our everyday understanding of the world to help us choose a preposition (Vandeloise 1991, p. 34). For example, we can say that a banana is in a bowl of fruit, even when it is not technically in a bowl but on top of the other fruit in the bowl, because we know the other fruit will support it.  This may not be possible in languages other than English. We also tend to see things in terms of people (Vandeloise 1991, p. 38). e.g. the foot of the page; the back of a book. Foot and back are terms usually used to describe human bodies, but we can apply them to other things too.

    Bowerman and Pederson (in Brala, 2002, p. 37) constructed a continuum using the words on and in in English, and discovered that other languages used a similar continuum. Here is a version using several different languages and presented in a slightly different order to Bowerman and Pederson’s version. (Ms Parrot’s version is in a different order based on her English respondents’ feedback. It should be noted that Bowerman and Pederson did much more extensive research on this than Ms Parrot did, but the overlaps with different languages are still interesting.) (Please click to see it in more detail in pdf or Word format.)

    Continuum

     

  • References

    Boers, F., & Demecheleer, M. (1995). A cognitive semantic approach to teaching prepositions. ELT Journal. 52(3): 197-204.  Retrieved from <http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/vol52/issue3/index.dtl>.

    Brala, M. M. (2002). Understanding language specificity: Causes and consequences. Psychology of Language and Communication. 6(2): 33-46.

    Coxhead, A. (2012). The academic word list. Retrieved from: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

    Langacker, R. W. (2010). Cognitive linguistics research [CLR]: Concept, image, and symbol: The cognitive basis of grammar. Walter de Gruyter: ProQuest ebrary.

    Lindstromberg, S. (2010). English prepositions explained. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Tyler, A., & Evans, V. (2003). The semantics of English prepositions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Vandeloise, C. (1991). Spatial prepositions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    My thanks also to Rod Mitchell for many insightful comments on the LinkedIn Applied Linguistics forum.

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