How to Use Prepositions in English


Prepositions cause a lot of problems for students of English. I think it’s because the use of prepositions varies a lot from language to language and it’s very natural to want to use the same preposition in English as in your language – but this doesn’t always work! One thing about prepositions which is actually quite easy once you learn it is how to use prepositions of time. We use ‘in’ ‘on’ ‘at’ and ‘no preposition’ to talk about time.

When to use ‘at’:

In general, if the time is a fixed point, we use ‘at’. So we use it with times like ‘6 o’clock’ or ‘midnight’:
  • I went to bed at eleven last night
  • We arranged to meet at half past three
  • The train leaves at 7:28
We also use ‘at night’:
  • I don’t like walking alone at night
Another expression with ‘at’ is ‘at the weekend’ (you can also say ‘on the weekend’):
  • What are you doing at the weekend?
Finally, we use ‘at’ + holiday period (for example, 'Christmas', 'Thanksgiving' or 'New Year') Remember, ‘at Christmas’ means the whole holiday (usually a few days), not only Christmas day:
  • I love spending time with my family at Christmas
  • She went on holiday to Spain at Easter
  • They stayed at home at New Year

When to use ‘on’:

We use ‘on’ with any day, including dates. For example, we can say ‘on Tuesday’ or ‘on my birthday’ or ‘on the 2nd of July’ or ‘on Christmas Day’:
  • I met him on Wednesday
  • She called us on New Year’s Day
  • The party is on the 13th of February
We also use ‘on’ if we are talking about part of a day, like the morning or afternoon. For example, we say ‘on Saturday morning’ or ‘on Thursday night’:
  • We met on Friday night
  • The meeting is at eight o’clock on Monday morning
  • Are you busy on Thursday afternoon?
Finally, we can also say ‘on the weekend’. This is just the same as ‘at the weekend’:
  • We went to a really good party on the weekend

When to use ‘in’:

We usually use ‘in’ for longer periods of time. First, we use ‘in’ with years (in 2006, in 1979):
  • I first came to London in 2004
  • She was born in 1982
  • Shakespeare was born in 1564
Second, we use ‘in’ with decades (in the 1960s, in the seventies):
  • My grandparents met in the 1930s
  • The Beatles were popular in the sixties
  • She was born in the 90s
Third, we use ‘in’ with centuries and millennia:
  • In the 19th century, women couldn’t vote
  • The Roman Empire conquered Britain in the first century
  • Leonardo da Vinci was born in the 1400s
Fourth, we use ‘in’ with seasons:
  • I love eating outside in the summer
  • We visited Venice in the winter
  • She came to London in the autumn (or ‘fall’)
  • You should visit Kyoto in the spring
Finally, although it’s not a long period of time, we also use 'in' with most parts of day when they’re alone (in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening). ‘Night’ is an exception, we say ‘at night’:
  • I always drink coffee in the morning
  • We met in the afternoon and had a cup of coffee together
  • She gets home late in the evening

When to use no preposition:

When we use ‘last’ ‘next’, ‘every’, ‘this’ ‘all’ with an expression of time, we don’t need a preposition (we don’t need ‘the’ either):
  • I saw John last week
  • I go swimming every Tuesday
  • Let’s meet next month
  • I’ve seen her this morning
  • We danced all night
We don't need to use a preposition when we use 'today', 'yesterday' or 'tomorrow':
  • I'll see you tomorrow
  • He called me yesterday
  • Have you seen Lucy today?
We often don’t use ‘at’ when we are talking about times using ‘about’:
  • I’ll see you at about five o’clock
  • I’ll see you about five o’clock

Guest post by Seonaid, an English teacher with over eight years' experience and a Master's degree in English and Linguistics from Cambridge University. She's taught in Japan, Korea and New Zealand, and now works in London. Check out her website at Perfect English Grammar, or try some exercises about prepositions here.
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