Prepositions & Prepositional Phrases

The devil is in the details 

(used for saying that something may seem simple, but in fact the details are complicated and likely to cause problems)

Whoever learns a language knows how tricky prepositions can be. They are those details which sometimes make things complicated. Take “in time” and “on time” for example. The phrases look similar, they are both related to time, but they mean different things. “In time” is “early enough,” while “on time” means “arriving at the correct time and not late.”

You already know that there are so many such prepositional phrases, don’t you? Sometimes they can be explained logically, but very often you just have to memorize them. If prepositions and prepositional phrases are a nuisance, read on. The exercises below will help you learn some in context, and expand your vocabulary.

Choose the correct preposition to complete the text (the answer key is given below):

The Internet can substitute surface 1. (with/for) depth, and its passion (for/to) recycling would surpass the most committed environmentalist. Our thinking habits have changed dramatically. If information is not immediately available via a Google search, people are often completely 3. (in/at) a loss. But there is no question, 4. (in/to) my mind, that the access to raw information provided by the Internet is unparalleled. We’ve read that the Internet sounds the death knell 5. (to/of) reading, but people read online all the time. What’s being read is changing, often 6. (for/to) the worse. But it is also true that the Internet provides a treasure trove 7. (of/with) rare documents and images, and as long as we have free access 8. (for/to) it, the Internet can be a force 9. (to/for) education.

Answer key: 1. for 2. for 3. at 4. to 5. of 6. for 7. of 8. to 9. for

  1. If you substitute something for something, you use something new or different instead of what is normally used: You can substitute chicken for beef if you don’t like red meat. I’m substituting for her while she’s on holiday (= I am doing her job because she is not here). Substitute can also be a noun: Margarine can be used as a substitute for butter. Feeling sorry for someone is no substitute for love.
  2. A passion for something is a strong enthusiasm or interest: I have a passion for languages. His passion for football is great. 
  3. If you are at a loss, you are confused and you don’t know what to do: What does this mean? – I’m at a loss. You can also be at a loss to do something: I was at a loss to understand what had happened. I’m at a loss to explain this. 
  4. To my mind” is used for emphasizing that you are expressing your own opinion: To my mind, this book is very interesting. That situation is, to my mind, unacceptable.
  5. If an event/situation sounds the death knell of or for something, the event/situation is a sign of the end of something: The arrival of supermarkets sounded the death knell of small shops. The opening of the superstore will sound the death knell for hundreds of small independent shops.
  6. If something is changing for the worse, it’s getting worse (the opposite of “for the worse” is “for the better”): Things have taken a turn for the worse. The weather is changing for the worse. 
  7. A treasure trove of something is a collection of valuable, interesting, or useful things: The Internet is a treasure trove of information. This museum is a treasure trove of history. 
  8. If you have access to something, you have the right or opportunity to have or use something that will bring you benefits: Access to up-to-date information is important to our success. Hackers had complete access to the files.
  9. A force for something is someone or something that has a powerful influence on what happens: The most obvious force for change in industry is technical advance. We seek to be a force for peace and integration.

Choose the correct preposition to complete the text (the answer key is given below):

My ability to concentrate is nibbled away 1. (by/with) the Internet. In those quaint days before the Internet, once you made it 2. (to/for) your desk there wasn’t much to do. Now you sit down and there is a universe of possibilities – many of them obscurely relevant 3. (with/to) the work you should be getting on 4. (with/at) – to tempt you. To think that I can be sitting here, trying to write something about the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman and, a moment later, 5. (on/with) the merest whim, while I’m 6. (in/with) Swedish mode, can be watching a clip from a Swedish documentary about the jazz musician Don Cherry – that is a miracle. Then there’s another thing. From the age of 16, I got 7. (into/onto) the habit of compiling detailed indexes in the backs of books of poetry and drama. So, if there was a quote I needed for an assignment, I would spend hours going 8. (in/through) my books, seeking it out. Now I just google key words.

Answer key: 1. by 2. to 3. to 4. with 5. on 6. in 7. into 8. through

  1. By is used with a passive verb here for showing what causes something: Children are fascinated by the idea of magic. Damage caused by the storm is irreparable.
  2. If you make it to your seek, you get to your desk. If you make it somewhere, you arrive at the place successfully or on time: We only made it to the concert a few minutes before it was supposed to begin. I don’t think I can make it back to camp—you go on without me!
  3. If something is relevant to something, it is directly connected with and important to what is being discussed or considered: How is that relevant to this discussion? Education should be relevant to the child’s needs.
  4. If you get on with something, you give your time to something and make progress with it: The sooner we finish the speeches, the sooner we can get on with the celebration. I like to be left to get on with the job.
  5. A whim is a sudden feeling that you must have or must do something. If you do something on a whim, you do it spontaneously: On a whim, she decided to go away for the weekend. I bought the shoes on a whim. 
  6. Mode (uncountable) is a person’s or organization’s condition or way of behaving at a particular time, because of the situation they are in: When you are managing a business in crisis mode, you have to take tough decisions. Let’s order sushi while we are in Japanese mode.
  7. If you get into the habit of doing something, you develop that habit: I’m trying not to get into the habit of always having cookies with my coffee. I’ve got into the habit of listening to music before going to sleep. 
  8. If you go through something, you search through or examine methodically: She started to go through the bundle of letters. I’m going through my wardrobe and throwing out all the clothes I don’t wear any more.

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