Prepositions – So Much Depends Of Them

Nine out of ten times, when a sentence just doesn’t make any flippin’ sense, even though you know all the words, it’s because of the evil workings of a preposition.

Compared to the masses of verbs, nouns and adjectives that exist in a language, the number of prepositions is miniscule.ย  European languages have, on average, what, maybe thirty…? And yet, using those pesky little words correctly takes longer to learn than anything else. It’s also the first thing that goes when you lose regular contact with a language.

English phrasal verbs (which are, essentially, verbs married to prepositions) are infamous for making students despair. Take the verb “to look” as a random example: Look at, look for, look out for, look about, look over, look after… the preposition completely changes the meaning every time. English has thousands of phrasal verbs, including colloquial and regional variations that don’t appear in any dictionary.

To make matters worse, many have several, often completely different meanings depending on context. “To make out” is a prime example. Adding the preposition “on” to the phrasal verb “to go down”, gives it a completely new dimension… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Other languages also have phrasal verbs, and plenty of them, Spanish being no exception. It took me ages to figure out, for example, that “dar con”, which literally translates as “to give with”, actually means “to find/encounter”. Makes no intuitive sense whatsoever!

SunsetWhen people are taught German as a foreign language, they are told that specific prepositions often correspond to specific cases, e.g. “mit” (with) always takes the dative. So, if you don’t know the correct preposition to start with, chances are you’ll get all the noun and adjective endings wrong as well, resulting in an irreparably screwed up sentence.

Even in fairly closely related languages like English and German, prepositions do not correspond. In German, you give “after”, not “in” and you depend “of” someone or something. Not all prepositions exist in every language, making translations cumbersome and learners tear their hair out.

It is generally drilled into students to learn prepositions in conjunction with a set of common verbs, e.g. “to concentrate on” and “to insist on” are a couple of classic examples, where only one preposition is viable, but in most cases, are just too many different possibilities for all of them to be learnt by rote.

In short, the only way to get your prepositions down to a pat is by knowing what sounds ‘right’ and what doesn’t. And this, as some of you will have found out, takes aeons of exposure. In fact, I’d say, that it’s impossible to achieve unless you’ve actually been living for years and years and years in a country where the language is spoken.

Advertisements

52 thoughts on “Prepositions – So Much Depends Of Them

  1. pollyheath

    I’ve juuuust been going over this with my students. The anger when I explain there are no rules… The only upside is when they make unintentionally hilarious mistakes so I can laugh before returning to despair.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Anna

    That’s it. I now have an anxiety attack. I still can’t believe I have learned English well enough to the point where I ‘just know.’ >.<

    Like

    Reply
  3. TBM

    But do nine out of ten dentists agree? And now I bet I have a dream tonight that I forgot to take my French final and will fail the course. Twenty years later and I still have nightmares about college.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Same here!!! I’ve three types of recurring nightmares:
      – Am back at school/college sitting an exam (usually Maths, but that can vary)
      – Am back at some previous job, with no clue what to do
      – Am about to travel somewhere, suitcase not packed, am already late for the flight, and public transport not cooperating

      Maybe we should do a blog survey, I bet the above themes are really common!

      Like

      Reply
      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Aw, how unpleasant ๐Ÿ˜ฆ
        Being pursued/chased does come up every once in a while, and having trouble getting away, but it’s not usually due to paralysed legs

        Like

      2. TBM

        I wonder what the fear is that causes that dream. You should do a post with a survey. I wonder what plagues most of us at night.

        Like

  4. Expat Eye

    Ah, if I had a lat for every time I wrote ‘it depends ___’ on the board. The students all look at me like I’m mentally challenged and say ‘on’ in an exasperated manner. Then proceed to say it depends of, it depends from… every time they use it in a sentence!!

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yup… ‘knowing’ the rules and applying them in ‘live’ speech is quite a different matter.
      You’ve arrived in Rugby and you’re alive, I see ๐Ÿ˜‰
      The Dutchman has locked himself into a wardrobe for five weeks, I’m guessing.

      Like

      Reply
      1. Expat Eye

        The teachers had our induction today. They tried to ‘jazz it up’ by making us do role plays etc. One of them called for a character that was not so bright. The guy playing the role immediately put on an Irish accent ๐Ÿ˜‰ Another guy slept through the whole induction… Going to be an interesting 5 weeks!

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        The Irish = a bit dense. Weird association…! Welsh accent would have been better, lololol.

        Do they know you’ve got a blog? They better be careful…

        Like

  5. bevchen

    Ah yes, prepositions. It took me literally MONTHS to remember that it’s “warten auf” not “warten fรผr”. And don’t even get me started on those ones that can be either dative of accusative depending on the sentence. Aargh!!

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I know… people keep asking me to explain these things to them – and I can’t! I don’t even know how to explain to them how they can tell which case a sentence happens to be in. I can do it, but only by thinking about it in a way that would only make sense to a native German speaker.

      Like

      Reply
      1. bevchen

        Haha. It goes something like this… say a book is just lying there on the table. There is no movement, so it’s… one of them. Dative I think???? But if you place the book on the table, there is movement (book moving towards the table), there is movement, so it’s the other one. And that’s the point where my brain explodes.

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        OK, let’s try this out…
        Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch. Dative, fair and square.
        Das Buch rutscht รผber den Tisch. Accusative. It works!!

        You are a fucking genius.

        Like

  6. ottominuti

    It’s very funny this preposition story. I think I got it in English just after years and only by talking or watching television. Any grammar rule studied in school was simply useless. What is funny too is the different verbs related to life events. In German you “receive” a baby, in most of the other western languages you just have a baby. I always wondered where the German receiving comes from, because it sounds sort of religious, as if it was sent by someone. And so on, there’re hundreds of examples.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes, the verbs are a total conundrum! Spanish lacks the verb “to become” / “werden”, and there’s a choice of about eight that you have to use instead, and I’m only just now starting to get to grips with this. I guess Italian must be similar…

      And of course you receive a baby. From the stork! Everybody knows this!!!!

      Like

      Reply
      1. ottominuti

        Oh yes, I had with a friend a whole conversation about this lack of “becoming” (volverse?). And also, very interesting: there isn’t in Italian an exact translation of “sharing”. You can say “condividere” but it’s already sort of literary and you would never say it to a child. It must have something to do with the innate reticence toward…sharing:-)

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        That IS interesting! In Spanish it’s compartir, and in Portuguese dividir, so it’s not a Romance language issue.

        Volverse is one of the verbs that can be used for “to become”, but it depends on the context. There’s also convertirse, hacerse, ponerse, etc.

        Like

  7. Rachel

    Ha… prepositions. Always fun. Not.

    I don’t think it’s particularly fair that prepositions change from language to language. And sometimes even within the language. Am I looking at something or on something? Why is it that some Germans are in the Post Office, whilst others are apparently on it?

    Although, the language (that I know of) that really takes prepositions to a whole new level is Gaelic (either one). Admittedly there are only about 17 of them, but they have this nasty habit of popping up in a sentence and taking the place of a verb. Because Gaelic doesn’t have a verb for “to have”. Instead it’s at me. Or on me. Or with me. Depending on how emphatic you want to be about your possession or ownership of the thing. Or feeling, for that matter.

    Oh, and Gaelic prepositions conjugate. The verbs don’t, but the prepositions do. Gah! Why didn’t I bother paying attention to this language when I was small?

    Like

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Prepositions are Evil! | Rachel's Ramblings

  9. Laruthell

    Doesn’t “dar con” mean “to find” not “to look for”? For example, “Ayer di con una moneda en la calle.”

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s