Many preposition choices are dictated by a word next to them
HOW WORDS BELONG TO OTHER WORDS
Some words in a sentence “belong” to another word near them and some do not. Compare the missing words in these two sentences:
(a) India is separated from China by … Himalayas.
(b) The … Sea touches two different continents.
In (a), the missing word is the. We know this because the next word Himalayas is the name of a mountain range, a name that grammatically requires the (see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns). In other words, the belongs to it. In (b), however, there are various possibilities: an adjective like Red or Mediterranean, a noun like Bering or Timor, or simply nothing at all. Although the other words in the sentence give some clues about the kind of word needed, they cannot by themselves identify it.
The need for the created by the surrounding words in (a) is a grammatical one. This is because the by itself is usually thought of as a “grammatical” word. More examples of how grammar can dictate the choice of neighbouring words are in the post 100. What is a Grammar Error? However, grammar is not always the driving force; an alternative is that aspect of vocabulary known as “collocation”: the tendency of particular non-grammatical words to go with particular other such words (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). For example, with importance the conventional adjective to express the meaning of “big” is not big or large but great (see 108. Formal and Informal Words).
Note that a collocation rarely prevents the two words from being able to combine with other words. For example, importance can go with other adjectives than great, such as regular or unexpected. As a result, the definition of a collocation has to involve meaning: we need to say that great is the normal adjective with importance when we mean a large quantity of importance.
HOW PREPOSITIONS ARE DETERMINED BY OTHER WORDS
English prepositions are sometimes chosen according to their own meaning, in the same way as the missing word in (b), and sometimes determined by either grammar or collocation (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). Here is an example of meaning being key:
(c) Nomadic peoples can be found … Europe.
Various prepositions are possible here, depending on what we want to say. The options include in, across, outside, near, next to or beyond.
The ability of grammar to determine the choice of a particular preposition may be illustrated as follows:
(d) The Mediterranean Sea is bounded … Europe in the north and Africa in the south.
It is easy to decide that the preposition needed here is by. The reason is that it links a verb in the passive voice (underlined) with nouns that would be the verb’s subject if it were active. Other examples of grammatically-determined prepositions 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).
Prepositions determined by collocation are much more numerous, and hence harder to remember, than those determined by grammar. The partner words that determine them fall into a variety of categories. The rest of this post identifies and illustrates these different categories of preposition-determining words and indicates some of the associated prepositions that often give 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. These particular prepositions are not always required with these particular verbs, but they are when the verbs mean “cause”, “be based on”, “manage” and “be owned by”. 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.
Many adjectives have a typical following preposition. In a few cases, the same preposition must always be either present or understood. This applies, for example, to intent:
(e) Medical researchers are intent on finding a cancer cure.
Other adjectives like this include adept at, averse to, bent on, conducive to, conversant with, devoid of, equivalent to, incumbent upon, opposite to (= “contrasting with”), prone to, reliant on and subject to.
Note that equivalent and opposite can also be nouns, their preposition then being of. Different from all of these are numerous adjectives with more than one typical following preposition. An example is sorry, which is commonly found 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 they 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 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:
(f) 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:
(g) Air pollution levels can be plotted on a graph.
(h) It was quickly noted that there were problems with the graph.
In (g) the preposition on is necessitated by the noun graph after it, while in (h) 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 (h) 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 a solution to, confidence in, a difference between, a discussion about, enthusiasm for, feedback on, an effect on, an increase in, instructions for, interest in, a limit on, an obstacle to, a reason for and a problem with. The underlined nouns are also commonly partnered by an alternative preposition (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1 and 134. Words with a Variable Preposition). Noun-preposition combinations are further illustrated in the posts 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.