Prepositions: Teaching Implications

  • Confusion over which preposition to use is often a language feature of pupils with English as an additional language. Often a verb can be followed by one preposition in one context and another preposition in another context eg we 'aim to' please but we 'aim at' a target. There are rarely grammatical 'rules' to determine which preposition should be used and further experience of native language speaking and reading in English will help to generate confidence in this area.

  • One of the most common errors in pupils' writing is using the preposition 'of' instead of the abbreviated verb 've'. So 'could of', 'should of', 'might of' are common manifestations in secondary exercise books! Help writers to see that their mistake is due to writing what the word sounds like rather than thinking about it means.

  • Prepositions are one element in achieving formality or informality in writing. Prescriptive grammarians used to insist that it was incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, leading to Churchill's alleged satirical retort that 'This is something up with which I will not put' highlighting the absurdity of such rule-bound prescriptions.

    However, altering the placing of the preposition can affect the formality or informality of the text and is one way readers and writers might consider differing reader-writer relationships. It is not an 'either/or' choice; often the formal version avoiding the end-of-sentence preposition sounds rather pompous or archaic, and so the sentence might be recast a different way.

    Who did you give it to?
    To whom did you give it?
    Who did you give the present?

    Who is she going with?
    With whom is she going?
    Who is going with her?

    Verbs followed by prepositions (sometimes called phrasal verbs) are common in informal English eg put up with; mess up; leave out; To increase formality, many of these can be replaced by a single verb eg endure; ruin; omit.

    Teaching about these formal-informal possibilities should focus on discussing and understanding the different ways that formality is conveyed, rather than teaching children 'rules' about how to be more formal.

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