Choosing the right preposition can be challenging for ESL speakers because prepositions do not translate well from one language to another. In addition, much preposition use is not governed by rules. This handout begins with some general rules and explanations, and then it directs you to online resources that can help you identify correct prepositions.
At/on/in for Place and Time
Generally, at is used with “small”, on with “medium”, and in with “big” places and times.
Adjective/Noun/Verb + Preposition Combinations
Many adjectives, nouns, and verbs are followed by specific prepositions. No rules govern this use, so these combinations should simply be memorized. The table below illustrates just a few examples of such combinations.
If you are unsure of your preposition choice, try one (or several) of the following methods:
1) Dictionary: using a dictionary can be particularly helpful for identifying prepositions in a combination with an adjective/noun/verb. For example, the search for the verb approve in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/ ) reveals that this verb is followed by the preposition of.
2) Collocation dictionary: a collocation dictionary (e.g. http://www.ozdic.com/ ) shows some common words (including prepositions) that follow a particular word.
3) Google: search a phrase with a preposition in Google. If the search results show many entries containing this exact phrase, your preposition choice is correct. Conversely, if your initial preposition choice is not precise, you will see fewer entries.
4) Corpus: search a phrase with or without a preposition in a corpus (e.g. https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/). For example, if you want to check if “at the other hand” is correct, you can either enter the whole phrase in the search box and then see that the search yields only five matches in a 560 million-word collection of texts meaning that such phrase is almost never used. Alternatively, you may enter a part of the phrase without the preposition “the other hand” or even “other hand” and notice that the only preposition used is on. Thus, the correct expression is “on the other hand”.
5) Netspeak (http://www.netspeak.org/ ): enter the phrase you are unsure of in the search box and substitute the preposition with the question mark(?). The tool will show the most common preposition used with the phrase you entered.