Thursday, November 6, 2014

Help with Prepositions

For five years I worked as a full-time editor. During that time, I saw more grammatical and spelling errors than I can count. However, certain errors wormed their way into manuscript after manuscript of many different authors. Nowadays I see those same errors often repeated. 

If you want to strengthen your grip on proper English, here are a couple easy tips about prepositions.


The preposition "on" generally shows static location:

John was on the boat.

But what about this sentence?

John jumped on the speedboat.

Despite common improper usage, that sentence means that John was already on the boat and was jumping up and down there. It does not mean that he started someplace else and took a leap that ended on the boat. If you intend to say that John started out on a pier, or on a ship, or on some other object then leaped, ending on the speedboat, then that would be written with a different preposition, the one that incorporates motion:

John jumped onto the speedboat. 

So, "on" indicates location, but "onto" shows motion from one place to another. (True, there are figures of speech such as "on drugs" or "on a roll," but this discussion concerns only the most literal use of the prepositions.)


Another little preposition that often causes writers to stumble is "in." Consider the following:

Jane walks in the gym.

That reveals Jane is already located inside a gym and that she is walking. Maybe she's on a track, maybe on a treadmill, but inside the gym is where she does her walking. That sentence does not mean Jane had been standing outside, then stepped through the gymnasium doorway. That concept uses a different preposition, the one that incorporates motion:

Jane walks into the gym. 

Once again, many non-literal figures of speech use "in" and have nothing to do with physical location ("in love," "in trouble," "to be in luck").

In summary, if you want to show literal motion and not simply location, remember to write "onto" and "into."  Mastering such fine points will show editors you actually know how to write.

Rick Barry has freelanced hundreds of articles and short stories and had two novels published. Kregel Books has slated his third novel, The Methuselah Project, for Fall 2015.