Common Prepositional Mistakes When Using 'to', 'in', 'at', 'of', 'on', 'at', and 'over'

It can be difficult to know which preposition to use in a given situation due to the enormous number of prepositions in English and the fact that many prepositions fulfil several roles. This is particularly difficult with prepositions used after verbs.

In this piece, we'll look at some frequent mistakes people make when attempting to figure out which preposition to use with which verb, as well as trends that can help us make the right choice.

Here you will learn the Common Prepositional Mistakes When Using 'to', 'in', 'at', 'of', 'on', 'at', and 'over'.

Common Prepositional Mistakes When Using 'to', 'in', 'at', 'of', 'on', 'at', and 'over'

Verbs of motion — to vs. in

The preposition "to' is typically used with verbs that depict movement from one place to another. We employ the prepositions "in" or "into" when describing a movement from one place to another. When using a motion verb that can express both scenarios, this can cause confusion between the two prepositions.

For example:
✖ “I went in New York last year.” (incorrect)
✔ “I went to New York last year.” (correct)

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

✖ “I arrived to the railway station late.” (incorrect)
✔ “I arrived at the railway station late.” (correct)

When describing movement from one place to another, remember to use the word "to." "Arrive," on the other hand, is a "static" verb, implying that there is no movement from point A to point B. In this scenario, we must employ the preposition "at," which indicates that we are in a certain location.

Other examples of static verbs are "be" and "stay"; we also use "at" rather than "to" with these verbs, as in:

✖ “I was to the theatre last night.” (incorrect)
✔ “I was at the theatre last night.” (correct)

✖ “I stayed to my brother’s house last night.” (incorrect)
✔ “I stayed at my brother’s house last night.” (correct)

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:
✖ “This is the key of my room.” (incorrect)
✔ “This is the key to my room.” (correct)

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:

✔ “This is the main door of the house.” (correct—meaning the primary door belonging to the house)
✔ “This is the main door to the house.” (also correct—meaning the primary door to gain access to the house)

Different media — in vs. on

Another pair of similar prepositions are "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:

✖ “I saw it on the newspaper.” (incorrect)
✔ “I read it in the newspaper.” (correct)

✖ “I saw it in TV.” (incorrect)
✔ “I saw it on TV.” (correct)

Containment and nativity — in vs. of

✖ “The Nile is the longest river of the world.” (incorrect)
✔ “The Nile is the longest river in the world.” (correct)

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:
✖ “He is a citizen in Greece.” (incorrect)
✔ “He is a citizen of Greece.” (correct)

✖ “The gray wolf in North America is a beautiful creature.” (incorrect)
✔ “The gray wolf of North America is a beautiful creature.” (correct)

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 confusion between the two. 

For example:
✖ “My brother is good in English.” (incorrect)
✔ “My brother is good at English.” (correct)

✖ “My sister does well at school.” (incorrect)
✔ “My sister does well in school.” (correct)

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:
✖ “I listened the radio last night.” (incorrect)
✔ “I listened to the radio last night.” (correct)

✖ “I’ll wait you.” (incorrect)
✔ “I’ll wait for you.” (correct)

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:

✖ “I’ll answer to the phone.” (incorrect)
✔ “I’ll answer the phone.” (correct)

✖ “She is going to marry with a lawyer.” (incorrect)
✔ “She is going to marry a lawyer.” (correct)

✖ “I asked to him to* buy some bread.” (incorrect)
✔ “I asked him to* buy some bread.” (correct)

(*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":

✔ “I asked Jeff.” (transitive)
✔ “I asked for Jeff.” (intransitive)

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:
✔ “John sent me a letter.” (correct—indirect object)
✔ “John sent a letter to me.” (correct—adverbial prepositional phrase)

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:
✖ “I’ll explain you the problem.” (incorrect)
✔ “I’ll explain the problem to you.” (correct)

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.”
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