Common Mistakes When Using Prepositions (German-English)

Non-native speakers not only have to deal with the English tenses, they also have to think about the other grammar topics.  Especially many people make mistakes when using the English prepositions.

The biggest hurdle when learning  a foreign language is lack of study time.  Many people don’t have enough time during the day to study grammar.  It happens  a lot:   when non-natives aren’t sure about what to say when speaking or writing, they resort back to their native language.  We translate directly from our native language when we aren’t sure of what to say.  Sure, we all make mistakes, but if left unchecked, these mistakes can become fossilized.

I see most mistakes being made with prepositions, and that’s why I’ll start here.  It only takes a few minsutes a day to identify the mistakes, correct them, and practice what is grammatically correct.


Prepositions and relationships of time and place:

These little words signal our relationship between people and things.  In the following examples I’ll show the differrences between two kinds of prepositions: “prepositions of time/Zeit and prepositions of place/Ortsstelle”.

IN  AT  ON  BY and time

 -IN- is for months, years and the different times of the day (like morning) or the different times of the year (like summer).

  • I will see you in the morning.
  • We go skiing in the winter.

-AT- you use when you want to give a specific point in time.

  • I will see you in the morning at 8:00.  (The sentence structure of the different units of time: the biggest unit comes first in the sentence. The smallest unit comes last in the sentence (days – hours – minutes – seconds). For example, “I left on Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock”.

-AT- is NOT to be used for days, months, and times of the year. They don’t represent a point in time. They represent a duration of time. A day consists of 24 hours, a year consists of 12 months, and so on.

  • He works at night.

-AT- you use when you want to signal a point in time (at 12 o’clock). He works “at night” (a point in time as opposed to day).  If you use -IN-, you emphasize the duration of the time.  For example, “in the morning” is not a point in time and represents generally the time from 8:oo to 12:00. If you say He works in the night you are emphasizing the duration of time that is “night” —  essentially the whole night.  In other contexts the prepositions are interchangable.  There isn’t a huge difference between the sentences, I wake up in the night and I wake up at night.

-ON- you use for days of the week and days of the month.

  • I will see you on Saturday  OR  I will see you on Saturday morning.

-BY- means”not later than” and “the time leading up to a particular point in time”

  • You will have my answer by Friday means:  I have from now until Friday to give you my answer
  • I must be in bed by 10:00 means: I’m not allowed to stay up later than 10:00.

IN  AT  ON  BY and location/place

-AT- refers to a place in the general vacinity.  You want to say that you are present at that general location, nothing more.

  • I will meet you at the restaurant.

MEANING:  I’ll meet you there, but we don’t know the exact spot we’re going to meet.  If I want to give the exact spot, I say, “I’ll meet you in the parking lot”, or “I’ll meet you in the restaurant”.

-ON-  refers to the surface of something.

  • The food is on the table. 

There are certain English expressions with the verb “be“. You can say:

  • I’m on the phone.
  • I’m on the computer.
  • I’m on the job.

That would mean that you are in the process of phoning or that you’re in the process of doing something on the computer, or that you are in the middle of doing a job. You cannot say, „I’m on my desk“.   That would mean that you are sitting on top of (on the surface of ) the desk.

  • I’m at the stove. 

and NOT „I’m on the stove“. That would mean that you are literally sitting on top of the stove.

  • I’m in the kitchen.

and NOT „I’m at the kitchen“. -AT- is not specific (remember “general vacinity”). The general vacinity of the kitchin is not “in the kitchen”. It might mean a room next to the kitchen.

-BY- you use as a preposition to mean “next to”

He’s by the car  means that he’s standing next to the car.

means of and -BY-

Grammatically speaking,  -BY-  in the following example sentences isn’t a preposition; it’s an adverb. The reason that I’m lumping it in with the prepositions is that it is very common to mix up -BY- and the German preposition -BEI-.

-BY- you use to describe the means by which you do something.

I go to work by train  (The train is the means by which I get to work)

He became rich by working hard   (Working hard is the means by which he became rich)

That’s it!  If you have any ideas, questions or comments for this blog, write me a tweet or leave something in the comments section below!

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