The Misuse of the English Preposition (Research)

Prepositions like other parts of speech are frequently misused as most students use preposition carelessly as if it is not rule governed. Moreover, the effective use of preposition adds to the writer’s or speaker’s communicative competence and linguistic performance. The purpose of this study is to examine the misuse of preposition by the eighteen-year-old students enrolled in the 12th grade preparing themselves for the Linguistic Competence in a Foreign Language Exam as part of the Baccalaureate. It focuses factors responsible for persistent errors in the students’ use of preposition. Attempt was also made to analyse types of prepositional errors observable in students’ use of English.

In spite of the fact that most prepositions in English are simple, one-word ones, they can be rather tricky as they can be troublesome for learners who study English as a foreign language. It is perhaps their appearance that makes students pay less attention to them in contrast with other parts of speech. In second language acquisition, error analysis studies the types and causes of language errors, establishing some patterns of errors. Why do students make mistakes? Why are prepositions so difficult to master?

Thoroughly analyzing the data I gathered within the research period, I discovered some patterns of mistakes which can be included into three categories of preposition mistakes:  1. the use of an incorrect preposition, 2. the omission of a required preposition and 3. the inclusion of an unnecessary preposition. No matter if students use complex or simple grammar structures to communicate in English, they have problems in dealing with the English prepositions. The right identification of the most common errors is meant to help teachers plan and develop strategies to minimise the misuse of prepositions.

According to the numerical data I got in our research, in all identified cases of incorrect use of the English preposition, most students’ problems seem to stem from the interference of Romanian, wrong application of rules or inappropriate learning.

What is more, the “group – focus” method offered the researcher the opportunity of discovering how students thought when they had to communicate in English. Three of them said they used English “as it came” which meant they had achieved a high level of handling a foreign language. Consequently, they reached the point of language automatism. Nonetheless, they do still make mistakes. The other 25 students confessed they first thought and built the sentences in Romanian and, then, they translated them into English. Despite the fact that all teacher’s efforts had been directed towards students’ feeling and thinking in English and translation practice had been minimized in the teaching-learning process, the Translation Method is widely used by students. Therefore, it comes to confirm what the numerical data have shown – the mother tongue interference is the main cause of preposition errors made by the eighteen-year-old Romanian students.

How can teachers correct prepositional mistakes? In spoken language, experienced teachers recognise and feel the moment it is more appropriate to correct mistakes. They are trained enough to let the learner speak or to stop and correct the mistakes without making bad influence upon the speaker’s fluency. Some teachers have extreme attitudes – some correct each and every mistake their student make while others do not correct the learner’s mistakes at all. These attitudes are not the best ways of reaching the goal. It is very important to measure the mistakes. There are two things which should be avoided: total lack of correction and lack of feedback.

It is easier to correct mistakes in written tasks. Both speaking and writing are productive skills, but when writing the student has enough time to think, to correct, to add or to explain. This also gives opportunity to the teacher to correct the mistakes made in writing. The teacher can think, read again and again and decide on the correction of the most important things as well as on the way of correcting the mistakes. The teacher’s capability of intervening only when necessary and in an appropriate way is an art – art that can be developed and improved in the classroom itself and in cooperation with the learners. ( Dana Zelenovic, 2007)

How can we teach prepositions efficiently? Students need to be exposed to the language as much as possible to gain sufficient input and exposure. Even in vocabulary studies, repetition of words is very important to ensure acquisition of new vocabulary. (Munkundan & Anealka, 2007) Can prepositions be seen as part of vocabulary? Is repetition a solution to studying prepositions appropriately? Although Thornbury (2002) states that, when reading words stand a good chance of being remembered if they have been met at least seven times over spaced intervals, teaching prepositions effectively requires studying them in context, not as single words. Teachers should help students learn about prepositions by learning about the company they keep. (Kennedy, 1991)

Furthermore, advanced learners could be assigned to explore collocations of particular prepositions in a variety of texts. Teachers should be able to plan strategies and select or adapt appropriate teaching materials to be used in teaching prepositions. All the prepositions stipulated in the syllabus must be introduced and taught repetitively in a structured way according to their functions to enhance students’ understanding. As it has been emphasized by the modern methods, the teaching of grammar is to be incorporated into the four language skills and should be taught in context and in a meaningful way. Therefore, certain prepositions are not to be taught in isolation but rather in relation to their occurrence with other words. (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999)

Context is essential when teaching prepositions. Consequently, it would be better to elicit explanations of expressions instead of words. For instance, the teacher should write on the blackboard go to school = a merge la şcoală instead of go = a merge, to = la, school = şcoală. Similarly, be at school = a fi la şcoală can be introduced or when teaching verbs, adjectives and nouns which require a preposition, students should be encouraged to see them as expressions: teach belong to =a aparţine cuiva, listen to = a asculta, wait for sb = a ştepta pe cineva and so on.
Even advanced learners of English find prepositions difficult, as a word for word translation is usually not possible. One preposition in Romanian might have several translations depending on the situation. There are hardly any rules as to when to use which preposition.  Teaching is an art and prepositions offer teachers the opportunity of proving their teaching skills, of finding various study tips to help their students learn prepositions correctly and easily.

1. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course (2nd edition), January 1999 — Volume 3, Number 4, Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle
3. Textbook Representation of Prepositions, Mukundan, Jayakaran; Roslim, Norwati, English Language Teaching, v2 n4 p13-24 Dec 2009


prof. Raluca-Simona Dragomir

Colegiul Ferdinand I, Măneciu (Prahova) , România
Profil iTeach:

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