tricky prepositions and other joys of non-native speakers


As a non-native speaker, I sometimes struggle with prepositions – not things such as “under the table” and “on the bed.” Those are easy. But other prepositions can be tricky. There seem to be few hard-and-fast rules, and when there are rules, they have dozens of exceptions.

For example, it took me a while to figure out that apparently, you sit ON chairs with harder surfaces, IN more comfortable chairs and also in the driver’s seat of a car… but you sit ON bigger pieces of furniture like a couch or bed, no matter how comfortable they are.

Also, you travel IN a car or truck, but ON a bus, plane, ship, or train.

I also struggled with AT vs. IN for a while. Sometimes, people say they are “at the hospital” and sometimes “in the hospital” or “at school” vs. “in school,” etc. My impression is that “at” seems to refer to the general location, while “in” means the inside of the building.

I figured out that you apparently say ON Maui (an island), but IN the Bahamas (a group of islands).

And you say that something is ON top, but AT the top of the list.

Sometimes, an object is AT the edge (when it’s the edge of a surface or area), while others are ON the edge (when it’s a sharper edge).

Word creations

Sometimes, I’ve been known to create new words – because apparently, the English language doesn’t have enough :-)

I puzzled my beta reader with creations like “resignated,” “honorful,” “close-minded,” and “seldomly.”

Grammatically correct vs. naturally sounding:

I’m not sure whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage, but since I live in Germany, I don’t hear the English language every day. I learned what I know mostly from books, including grammar books. In everyday usage, many native speakers use incorrect grammar without even being aware of it. You hear something so often that it begins to sound right. For example, 90% of all lesbian fiction novels seem to use “like” and “as” / “as if” as if (pardon the pun) they were interchangeable.

So, sometimes, I have to make a decision between using the correct form of a sentence or choosing the incorrect form because it sounds more natural to native speakers. In dialogue, the choice is easy. But what about narrative? Do you use proper grammar, or do you write from a deep point of view in which you use the grammar and diction of your POV character?

If any non-native speakers are reading this, I’d be interested in what kind of problem areas you have when it comes to writing in English.

4 thoughts on “tricky prepositions and other joys of non-native speakers”

  1. I am resignated to feeling close-minded, since I seldomly ponder the honorful topics you’ve been sharing with us.

    I must insure to point out your very insightful.


    • Hey, don’t blame me for the fact that English is not a logical language. After all, why is there a “designated” driver, but not “resignated” driver? And why is it open-minded, but not close-minded? Why is “rarely” a qualifier with -ly, but “seldom” has to manage without the -ly?

      I thought I’d rectify that oversight. :-)

      • Actually close-minded is just fine. Perfectly useful term. The problem with designated and resignated is the American English function of their root words, designate and resign. “Designate” in this case means to identify/assign another to a task. “Resign” means to remove oneself, usually voluntarily. “Resignated” has no operational function in relationship to driving, you would simply use “resigned.”

        Another of your quandaries “in school” versus “at school”, the delineator is what is being discussed. If you are discussing being educated in the course of your presence, ie. matriculated, you are “in school”. If you are on the grounds, attending, for example, an art function, or an after-hours event at the stage, or a lecture, you are “at school.”

        Similarly you can apply this to “on a plane” versus “in a car”, because that is usually about control. One is “in a car”, particularly the driver, though a passenger is also because the controls are easily within view. In extreme circumstances you could find yourself in control of the car.

        One is “on a plane” as a passenger at all times, but “in a plane” when you are the pilot or part of the cabin crew. It can also be used when you are talking about being in a small plane as a passenger, because, like the car, the operational equipment is within your view and therefore potentially in your control.

        Another quandary you had, “on a stool” or “in a chair”… refers to the cushioning essentially, your ability to sink into the plushness. A stool has no cushioning; therefore you sit on it. One sits on a wooden straight-back chair — no cushion; one sits in a plushly cushioned chair because you will sink into the cushioning. However, most of the time, you can correctly use “on” with furniture; the implication is that you are not at full leisure, you are “perched”, and might flit off again after only a brief repose. If you have a character sit in a chair, the impression you are giving is she is going to stay there a while. And more appropriately you would use a better verb anyway, ie. “perched” for the brief sit, and “settled into” for the lengthier sit.

        Clear as mud now, eh?

        I am getting ready for work, but perhaps after work I can take on another of your quandaries.

  2. Thanks, Lara. Nice explanations!

    At this point, I know so much more about the rules of the English language than about German.

    I also heard the explanation that if you can walk around inside a vehicle (bus, plane, ship, train), then you should use “on” and when you don’t usually walk inside the vehicle (truck, car, taxi), you should use “in.” That’s somewhat similar to your explanation — if you the vehicle is large enough for you to walk around, you probably won’t end up taking control. If you sit next to the driver, you might.

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