Common Prepositional Errors

Due to the large number of prepositions in English, as well as the fact that many prepositions serve multiple purposes, it can be quite difficult to determine which preposition to use in a particular situation. This is especially tricky for the prepositions we use after verbs.
In this section, we’ll look at some common errors that arise when trying to determine the appropriate preposition to use with a particular kind of verb, as well as identifying patterns to help us make the correct choice.

Verbs of motion — to vs. in

Verbs that describe the movement from one place to another generally take the preposition to. However, when a verb describes a movement from one place into another, we use the prepositions in or into. This can lead to confusion between the two prepositions when using a motion verb that can describe either scenario. For example:
When we use a motion verb this way, we use the preposition of movement to. The only exception to the rule is the verb phrase go home, where home is an adverbial noun that modifies the verb. Otherwise we need to use to to express going from A to B.
Here are some more examples of motion verbs that take the preposition to:
  • “Walk to school.”
  • “Run to the store.”
  • “Move to the left.”
  • “Turn to the right.”
  • “Swim to the shore.”
  • “Drive to the country.”
  • “Cycle to work.”
Of course we can use other prepositions of movement when we describe different relationships between the verb and the object of the preposition. For example:
  • “Walk across the road.”
  • “Run along the river.”
  • “Cycle round the park.”
  • “Drive over the bridge.”
  • “Swim up and down the pool.”
  • “Went in the school.”

Static verbs — at vs. to

Remember, we use to with motion verbs when we describe the movement from one location to another. Arrive, however, is considered a “static” verb, meaning it indicates no movement from point A to point B. In this case, we need to use the preposition at, which is used to indicate being in a location.
Other examples of static verb are be and stay; we also use at rather than to with these verbs, as in:

Possession and access — to vs. of

The prepositions to and of can both be used to signify that something belongs to or is a property of another thing. However, we use to to indicate that something grants access or leads into another thing, which is a relationship that of does not describe. For example:
There are also certain instances in which we could use either preposition and still have a correct sentence, but the meaning would be subtly different:

Different media — in vs. on

Another pair of similar prepositions is in and on, which can both be used to describe the medium by which something is seen. We use in when we are talking about something appearing in printed media, while on is used to talk about something appearing on televised or digital media. Let’s look at two sets of examples to better see this difference:

Containment and nativity — in vs. of

Remember that of relates to belonging, while in refers to being inside or within someplace. We speak about countries and things being in the world, not of the world. On the other hand, when we describe someplace to which a person or thing is native, we use of and not in. For example:

Performance — in vs. at

When we describe how well someone does something, we often use the verb phrase is good followed by the preposition at. However, if we use the verb phrase does well, we usually use the preposition in, which can lead to a confusion between the two. For example:
When we are talking about a particular subject, we use is good at, but if we’re talking about a particular setting, we use does well in.

Over, on, and at the weekend

When we talk about our plans for an upcoming weekend, there are a number of prepositional constructions we can use. In American English, the most common prepositions to use are over and on. In British English, the most common preposition is at, though over is also used. Note that the preposition during is not used in either American or British English.
  • “I will do my homework on the weekend.” (American English)
  • “I will do my homework over the weekend.” (American and British English)
  • “I will do my homework at the weekend.” (British English)

Transitive and intransitive verbs

We must be careful with prepositions when it comes to transitive and intransitive verbs. Remember, transitive verbs can take direct (and sometimes indirect) objects, while intransitive verbs cannot.

Prepositions with intransitive verbs

If we want to express a direct relationship between an intransitive verb and something that seems to be receiving its action, we often use a preposition. For example:
If we leave out the prepositions to and for, we make the radio and you the objects of the intransitive verbs listen and wait, which is incorrect.

Prepositions with transitive verbs

Likewise, we must be careful not to use a preposition with the objects of transitive verbs:
(*Note that to buy in the last two examples is an infinitive, not a prepositional phrase; it is functioning as an adverb of purpose to modify the verb ask.)
The verb ask can also be an intransitive verb in some instances, in which case we can use the preposition for:
Be careful, though, because this changes the verb’s meaning. When we use ask with just a person’s name, as in the first example, it means to ask the person something, such as a question. When we ask for someone, it means we are requesting to see or speak to that person.

Prepositions and indirect objects

Some transitive verbs are able to take both direct objects and indirect objects (people or things that receive the direct object of the verb). If a verb is capable of taking an indirect object, that person or thing appears immediately after the verb and before the direct object. We can also place it after the direct object with the preposition to, in which case it is no longer a true indirect object but an adverbial prepositional phrase. For example:
However, not all transitive verbs can take indirect objects. If a verb is unable to have a true indirect object, we have to put the person or thing receiving the direct object in a prepositional phrase with to. For instance:

Verbs that take both to and at

Many verbs are able to take multiple prepositions after them. However, this often results in a change in the sentence’s meaning. The most common of these pairs is to and at—a large number of verbs are able to take both. We’ll look at a number of such constructions below.

Shout to vs. shout at

When you shout to someone, you raise your voice to ensure that he or she can hear you. If, on the other hand, you shout at someone, you raise your voice because you are angry with him or her. For example:
  • “I shouted to Mary, but she was too far away to hear me.”
  • “He just kept shouting at me, even though I had apologized.”

Throw to vs. throw at

If you throw something to someone, such as a ball, you intend for that person to catch it. For example:
  • “She threw the ball to the dog. He caught it and ran away with it.”
If you throw something at someone, you want to hit them with it. This could be because you are angry with them, as in:
  • “She was so angry with her husband that she threw her wedding ring at him.”

Point to vs. point at

You can point to or at a person as well as an object.
If we point to someone or something, we are indicating a location or direction. For example:
  • “She pointed to the sky.”
If we point at someone or something, we draw attention to that specific person or thing, as in:
  • “‘You’re the one who stole my bag!’ she shouted, pointing at the thief.”
Sometimes the difference between the two is very subtle, and we can use either preposition with little to no change in meaning.
  • “He pointed at/to his watch and said, ‘I must go. It’s very late.’”

Learning the correct prepositions

In this guide, we provide some general guidelines for determining which preposition to use in a given situation. However, the use of prepositions is particularly varied and flexible in English, so the best way to learn correct prepositional use is to pay close attention to the way people speak and write.
Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
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