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This is probably a rather abstruse question about the usage of "prepare"; I haven't been able to find any resources that clearly demonstrate or explain the difference in distributions of the verbs involved. I can only explain the problem through example sentences.

A lot of my students in SEA are using "prepare" ALL the time when they could (should?) have used another verb. For example:

  • I have prepared two tips for you. (in a PPT on teaching tips)
  • I have prepared some coffee for us. (as in, they bought coffee and brought it with them)
  • I will prepare the copies for you. (when you need to get copies made)

These are just a few examples and as you can see, they are not always completely illogical choices of verb, but they just sound weird. The coffee example is perhaps the easiest to explain, but I often get stuck explaining the usage. As "prepare" means to do something beforehand, then students think they can use it for any activity they did before whatever event they're talking about now ... yet this isn't the case. (Or there are at least more natural-sounding ways of expressing the situation.). So when is the transitive verb "prepare" meaning 'get [something] ready' idiomatic?

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    I agree with your observation: The verb "prepare" can be overused and appear to be an overcorrection. The circumstances are often where the speaker wishes to be seen as formally efficient. To prepare fails in some respects as the verb implies a complex action and that the listener will thereafter complete a further [and usually] specialised action. "I have prepared the laboratory equipment for your experiment, Professor."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 10:21
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    I’m voting to close this question because it looks like a peeve Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 10:49
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    Alongside Greybeard's answer-worthy (if he could find supporting references – the question is probably too subtle for dictionaries to directly address) 'prepare' is towards the formal side of the spectrum. 'I've prepared some sandwiches' works, but 'I've prepared three coffees' is outlandish. Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 11:33
  • Intuitively, "prepare" involves some element of either making or assembling or ensuring everything required is present and correct: "prepare food" means either make from scratch or at least bringing the parts together, taking them out of packets, warming/cooking, and putting them on a plate (not just buy or bring it); "prepare a room" means ensure everything needed is there and in the right place; "prepare a presentation" means gather images and write text (or decide what you'll say).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 12:55
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    @FumbleFingers It's not a peeve. It's looking for a specific rule or context that would make it clear when prepare is appropriate. Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 14:09

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It's often helpful to know the etymology of a word when trying to better understand its core meaning. So here goes:

prepare (v.)

mid-15c., "set in order or readiness for a particular end," a back formation from preparation and in part from Old French preparer (14c.), from Latin praeparare "to make ready beforehand," from prae "before" (see pre-) + parare "to make ready" (from PIE root *pere- (1) "to produce, procure"). Compare pare (v.), which is from the same Latin verb. Related: Prepared; preparer; preparing.

Intransitive sense of "make (oneself) ready beforehand" is from c. 1500. The sense of "bring into a particular mental state with reference to the future" is by 1520s. The sense of "make (food) ready to eat" is from late 15c. (Caxton). The meaning "provide or procure for future use" is from 1530s. An earlier verb was preparate (late 14c.), from Latin praeparatus, past participle of praeparare. The Boy Scouts' motto Be Prepared is attested from 1911, based, as he said, on the initials of the organization's founder, Robert Baden-Powell.

Since the verb prepare means to produce or procure something beforehand in your example sentences, the following description of the verb is incorrect:

"prepare" means to do something beforehand

It's not just any doing, but it's producing or procuring, which would involve a complex task. That's why your three examples are all strange things to say. Putting some tips in a presentation, buying coffee, or making some photocopies isn't a complex enough task to be able to use the verb prepare. Instead, your students should use those specific verbs such as put, buy, make, etc.

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  • Yes, the relative complexity of the action is a precondition for using prepare, but it should be made explicit that another precondition is that there be some time lag between the preparation and whatever the preparation us for. 'I will prepare the copies for you' may be OK if the copies will be needed for the meeting tomorrow, but not if they are needed right now.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 21:36
  • @jsw29 I don't think the timing is the issue in the OP's examples. Even if the copies are needed tomorrow, I wouldn't use "prepare" for as simple a task as making copies.
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 1:11
  • @JK2 I don't know if there is a bright line. You could say "I'll prepare the handouts if you give me the material" meaning copy and collate, especially if this is a big job.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 19:17

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