Prepositions and phrasal verbs

This article is written for the benefit of non-native speakers who are writing their dissertations.

To explain all the difficulties with prepositions in English would require many years; the only way English language students can learn about the use of prepositions and phrasal verbs is through practice and paying close attention to speech and the written word.

Here, first, is a guide to the correct use of prepositions.


Prepositions: time and place




We use “in” for non-specific times during a day, a month, a season, or a year

She likes to go for run in the morning

I will leave in an hour

It’s too cold in winter to go running

He started the job in 2011

He’s going on holiday in August


We use “in” for the names of towns, counties, states, countries, and continents.

She lives in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is in Brazil

Brazil is in South America


“In” with no definite article (‘the’)

in bed

in class


Where ‘in’ and ‘at’ are both possible:

in/at the library

in/at class

in/at school



We use “on” with expressions that indicate the time or day of an occurrence.


He was born on December 23

We will arrive on the fourth of July

I will see you on Friday

We also use “on” to designate names of streets, avenues, etc.

Her house is on Raglan Road


We also use ‘on’ to describe location – where something is.


on the floor

on the plane

on the train

on the bus

on the left

on the right

on television

on the radio

on the wall

(Dublin is) on the Liffey

on the first floor

on TV

on the radio



We lie in bed


We lie on the sofa.




We use “at” to designate specific times or places.



The train is due at 12.15pm

I relax at night



I live at 51 Raglan Road in Dublin

I am at home

I am at work

I am at the office

My friend is at the door

I am at the restaurant

I am at the table

I am at the party

I am at the concert




We watch a film at the cinema


We watch a film on television




approval of

awareness of

grasp of

love of

hatred of

understanding of



Other prepositions in time:

Since:  from a certain point of time in the past till now

Example: I’ve been living here since 1990


For:  over a certain period of time (past till now)

Example: I’ve been living here for 23 years


Ago: a certain time in the past

Example: I went to Brazil 20 years ago


Before: earlier than a certain point of time

Example: before 2004


To:  telling the time.

Example: ten to six (5.50pm)


Past:  telling the time

Example: ten past six (6.10pm)


To/till/until: describing the beginning and end of a period of time.

Example: from Monday to/till Friday


Till/until: describing how long something is going to last.

Example: he is on holiday until Friday


By: describing the latest moment.


I will be back by 6 o’clock

By 11 o’clock, I had read five pages


By/next to/beside: this indicates that something is  to the left or right of somebody or something.

Example: Renata is  standing by/next to/beside the door



Prepositions of Time: FOR and SINCE

We use “for” when we measure time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years).


He held his breath for 50 seconds

She’s lived there for seven years

The British and Irish have been fighting for seven centuries


We use “since” with a specific date or time.


He’s worked here since 1970

She’s been sitting in the waiting room since two-thirty



Prepositions about place



We use “to” in order to express movement toward a place.


They were driving to work together

She’s going to the dentist’s office this morning

I am going to bed

I want to go to the cinema

I will go to London




Toward and towards are also helpful prepositions to express movement. These are simply variant spellings of the same word; use whichever sounds better to you.


We’re moving toward the exit

This is a big step towards the project’s completion


With the words home, downtown, uptown, inside, outside, downstairs, upstairs, we use no preposition.


Grandma went upstairs

Grandpa went home

They both went outside/downtown/uptown, etc.



Under―indicates that something is lower than something else, and is on the ground.

Example: The handbag is under the table


Below― indicates that something is lower than something else, and is above ground.

Example:    the fish are below the surface (of the water)


Over―means that something is covered by something else.

Example: put a coat over your shirt

‘Over’ also means older than a particular age.

Example: The girl is over 18 years of age

‘Over’ can also mean a movement across something.

Example: to walk over the bridge; to climb over the wall


Above―higher than something else, but not directly over it.

Example: a path above the lake


Across―getting to the other side (also over)

Example: walk across the bridge; swim across the lake


Through―something with limits on top, bottom and the sides

Example: I drive through the tunnel


Into―enter a room/building.

Example:   I went into the house


Onto―indicates movement to the top of something

Example: To jump onto the table


From―indicates where something comes from

Example: A flower from the garden






interest in

belief in


concern for

desire for

fondness for

hope for


confusion about


need for

reason for

respect for


participation in

success in





afraid of

aware of

capable of

fond of

jealous of

made of

proud of

sure of

tired of


angry at


careless about

happy about

worried about


interested in


married to

similar to

sorry for


familiar with






apologise for

look for

ask for

pay for

study for

care for

prepare for

work for

ask about

think about

worry about

belong to

look forward to

bring up

give up

grow up

look up

make up

talk about

trust in

find out




A phrasal verb is a combination of verb and preposition. Here is a brief guide to their correct use.



You agree to a proposal

You agree with a person

You agree on a price

You agree in principle

You argue about a matter

You argue with a person

You argue for/against a proposition



“compare to” to show likeness.

Example: Brazil can be compared to Portugal for some cultural things they have in common.

“compare with” to show differences.

Example: Brazilian weather  is very hot compared with Irish weather.



Something “differs from” something else which is unlike it.

Example: China differs from Brazil as regards culture.

You “differ with” with a person if you disagree with him/her.



You “live at” an address

You “live in” a house or city

You “live on” a street

You “live with” other people



The teacher’s desk:

We are speaking about the desk

We are speaking about nothing except the desk

You can sit in front of the desk

The teacher can sit on the desk (when he’s being informal) or behind the desk

His feet are under the desk (or beneath the desk)

He can stand beside the desk (or next to the desk)

He can stand between you and the desk

He can rest his elbows on (or upon) the desk

He often looks across the desk

The teacher does not look like the desk

You may wonder what’s in the desk

How much did the school pay for the desk?

You can walk toward (or to) the desk

You can dance around the desk



You do your homework for the class

You have your breakfast before the class

You do not see the teacher until the class

You listen during the class

You go for a coffee after the class