Many preposition choices are dictated by a word next to them
HOW PREPOSITIONS CAN BE “TYPICAL”
Prepositions are by definition partners of other words (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). A “typical” preposition is one that is more likely than others to be found with a particular partner word. As a result, a speaker who knows it will often be able to predict it when it is not present. Compare the following:
(a) Nomadic peoples can be found … Europe.
(b) The Mediterranean Sea is bounded … Europe in the north and Africa in the south.
(c) Medical researchers are intent … finding a cancer cure.
In (a), we cannot be sure exactly what the missing preposition is: it could be in, across, outside, near, next to, throughout or beyond. Each of these prepositions expresses a different, equally possible meaning, and does not rely on any other word to do so. This use of a preposition is what I think of as a “pure” one: the basic meaning of the preposition is involved.
In (b), on the other hand, the preposition is much more predictable: any other possibility than by is hard to think of. However, this is still not a true “partner” preposition: we know what it is not from any other word in the sentence, but from the presence of a particular grammatical structure, the passive voice of the verb is bounded.
This use of a preposition is what I call “grammatical”. Other examples of it are for in purpose sentences (see 60. Purpose Sentences with “for”), with before an “instrument” (see 73. Ways of Saying How) and due to before a cause (see 72. Causal Prepositions). For more examples of how grammar can dictate the choice of neighbouring words, see 100. What is a Grammar Error?
Sentence (c) above also has a preposition that a skilled English user could predict quite easily: on. The predictability this time, however, does result from the presence of a partner word: the adjective intent. If you look this word up in a dictionary, you would find that it is nearly always followed by the name of a target, and it has to be linked to that target by the preposition on.
It is this kind of preposition use that the present post is about. It is a subdivision of the much wider vocabulary phenomenon in English known as “collocation” (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). Prepositions determined by collocation are much more numerous, and hence harder to remember, than those determined by grammar. Moreover, not all are as easy to predict as on in (c): some can be replaced by one or two alternatives. However, here I will concentrate on unique possibilities, leaving the question of preposition choice to the later post 134. Words with a Variable Preposition.
The partner words that determine collocational prepositions fall into a variety of categories. The sections below illustrate these different categories and indicate some of the associated prepositions that give particular problems to English users who speak a different mother tongue.
WORDS THAT DETERMINE A PREPOSITION CHOICE
Words that typically make a collocation with a preposition may be verbs, adjectives or nouns.
Verbs with a typical following preposition are commonly called “prepositional”. Examples are LEAD TO, DEPEND ON, COPE WITH and BELONG TO. Some of the verbs that make a combination like this always have the preposition, while some do not. LEAD, for example, can be used without a preposition to mean “be a leader of”.
Further examples of prepositional verbs, along with problems in using them, are presented elsewhere in this blog in the posts 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs, 108. Formal and Informal Words and 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun.
The word intent in (c) above is an adjective. Other adjectives with a single typical partner preposition include averse to, bent on, conducive to, conversant with, devoid of, equivalent to, incumbent upon, opposite to (= “contrasting”), prone to, reliant on and subject to. Note that equivalent and opposite can also be nouns, their preposition then being of.
Many other adjectives have more than one typical following preposition. Sorry, for example, may go with either for or about depending on meaning (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1). More about adjectives of this kind are in the post 134. Words with a Variable Preposition.
Another group of adjectives have a single typical preposition but can also be used without it, often to express a different meaning. Take conscious: by itself it means “awake” but with of it means “noticing”. Adjectives of similarity/difference may also belong here (see 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons).
Other adjectives like this include absent (from), afraid (of), aware (of), capable (of), characteristic (of), conditional (on), confident (of), content (with), curious (about), dependent (on), different (from/than), fond (of), harmful (to), identical (to), inherent (in), keen (on), kind (to), liable (to), proud (of), ready (for), responsible (for), short (of), similar (to), superior (to), tired (of), typical (of), worthy (of).
A possible source of confusion with adjectives of this kind is that their use without their typical preposition can still involve a preposition. Consider this:
(d) The supplies became ready after two days.
Superficially, this suggests that ready can combine with after. In reality, however, after is combining with two days instead. This is clear from the fact that after two days makes an obvious separate time phrase saying when the verb action happened. Moreover, for, the partner preposition of ready, can easily be added before this other preposition, for example in the expression for use.
Prepositions always have a partner noun or equivalent, usually placed after them (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). Sometimes they also have a noun just in front of them. Both of these noun types are capable of determining what the preposition is. Consider these:
(e) Air pollution levels can be plotted on a graph.
(f) It was quickly noted that there were problems with the graph.
In (e) the preposition on is necessitated by the noun graph after it, while in (f) with must be used because of the noun problems before it – even though the noun graph is still used after it. The reason for preferring with to on in (f) is that the meaning of on (position-locating) is not being expressed. If it were, problems on the graph would be the right thing to say.
Comprehensive lists of noun-preposition and preposition-noun collocations are unfortunately too long to provide in a short piece like this. However, a few indicative examples may be of use.
One important group in this category involves what I call “action” nouns: derived from verbs and similar to them in meaning (see 14. Noun Countability Clues 1). In particular, action nouns derived from prepositional verbs often have that verb’s preposition. Examples are (an) agreement with, (an) application for, attention to, (a) belief in, (a) benefit from, a complaint about, compliance with, (a) contribution to, correspondence to, dependence on, disposal of, a focus on, indulgence in, an objection to, (a) payment for, (a) reaction to, reliance on, a response to, a search for, a struggle with.
Combinations not linked to prepositional verbs include confidence in, enthusiasm for, feedback on, an effect on, instructions for, interest in, a limit on, an obstacle to and a reason for. Nouns that can be followed by more than one preposition are considered elsewhere not just in 134. Words with a Variable Preposition but also 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1, 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2, 78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns, 136. Types of Description by Nouns and 160. Uses of “of”.
One whole group of collocations in this category corresponds to common adverbs. For example, with accuracy means “accurately” and in depth means “deeply”. A full examination of this area is in the post 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs. Outside of this group, the following are of interest. For more, see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases.
With on: (a) computer, film, a graph, a map, an occasion, an overhead projector, a page, paper, a screen, the radio, the telephone, TV, video, a website (see 73. Ways of Saying How).
With in (1): a diagram, a table, a picture, a photograph, a chapter, a book, a text, a description, a story, a program, a video, a film, the distance, the middle
With in (ii): a fashion, a manner, a mode, a respect, a style, a way (see 73. Ways of Saying How).
With at: the beginning, the outset, the start, the close, the conclusion, the end, the finish, a level, a moment, a time , a point, a stage, a height, a depth, a pace, a rate, a speed, a velocity, the side, the top.
With under: the auspices of, a law, licence, the management of, the ownership of, a plan.