I am looking for 'rules' for all (most?) prepositions: which one to use when/where and why. I assume there will be different rules for different parts of the English speaking world. I was born and raised in western Canada. I 'know' what 'sounds' correct to me but I haven't been able to find formal rules. I listen to several BBC podcasts & I noticed they often use prepositions in ways that sound strange to me. Also I am helping a Quebec French speaker learn English. I am finding it almost impossible to explain which preposition to use when and why.

closed as not a real question by simchona, RegDwigнt Dec 10 '11 at 20:10

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    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a 65-page chapter on prepositions and preposition phrases, and additional information is spread throughout the rest of the book. There's a good deal to be said about them. It would help if you could provide some examples of the type of situations you have in mind. – Brett Reynolds Dec 10 '11 at 15:14
  • Wow, 65 pages! Perhaps that is why I am not finding one set of rules for all prepositions. Are you saying I should ask a separate question for each example that I encounter? Or is it reasonable to ask for all rules about one particular preposition? For example, do you recommend that I submit a new question asking, for example, 'What are the rules for using the preposition 'in'? – pmilligan57 Dec 10 '11 at 15:54
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    Maybe he is saying you should read the book and not ask here... – GEdgar Dec 10 '11 at 16:43
  • Well, are you asking, for example, about prepositional verbs like get on with, get over, get along, etc. Or are you asking about basic uses like the pencil is in/on/under/beside the case? Or is it some other element of prepositional use? – Brett Reynolds Dec 10 '11 at 19:30
  • It would help reopen if you gave some explicit examples that bother you (and what you expect instead). – Mitch Dec 10 '11 at 21:15

Sorry. There aren't any, for anywhere.

Usage of prepositions in English is normally not determined by general rules, but by Government. This is the term used in syntax to refer to affordances, prohibitions, and requirements imposed on a construction by particular words (mostly verbs) that are said to govern some particular effect.

For instance, look and listen are officially intransitive; they can't take direct objects:

  • *He looked the picture.
  • *She listened the sonata.

But of course we usually want to know what was the source of the sensory input, so we use a preposition to indicate it.

  • He looked at the picture.
  • She listened to the sonata.

But why at and to? Because look governs at and listen governs to. That's it.

Every type of construction has some government restrictions on it, normally influenced by whatever verbs it contains. This kind of extremely deep dependency between and among constructions, predicates, and constituents is what makes English syntax so complex -- though it's no more so than any other language, mind. It's just by far the best-studied syntactic system. So far.

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    Thank you. This response significantly advanced my understanding and I obviously have a long way to go. – pmilligan57 Dec 13 '11 at 17:31

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