I never know how to use prepositions like of, in or at.

What's the rules for each one of then?

My last doubt was about this sentence:

  • Order of importance
  • Order in importance
  • Order at importance

What's the correct option? Could you help me with the rules for each one of them?

Thanks a lot!

  • Did you mean "importation", or "importance"?
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 8:55
  • It was importation, but the doubt it's the same, so importance it's just fine. Thanks!
    – Pmt
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 13:28

3 Answers 3


There won't be any simple rule we can tell you here that will tell you the right way to use words like these in every case. I can tell you this:

  • Most of these short prepositions have multiple meanings. The exact count will vary according to which dictionary you're looking at, but, according to this dictionary, of has 9 meanings, at has 6, with has 10, through has 10, in has 17, and on has 17 as well.

  • In addition to these high numbers of basic definitions, most of these words are used in idioms and phrasal verbs as well. Most people will tell you that on means “atop of” (and it does, when we say something like, the book is on the table), but, in addition to that meaning, we say things like on the radio, on the telephone, on the bus, on time, on trial, on hold, and on account of, and none of those expressions imply that anything is atop of anything else.

  • There are times when more than one word can be used, and the difference in meaning would be slight or negligible, such as, we had to meet Bob at the church on Oak Street (I could just as easily say, we had to meet Bob in the church on Oak Street; the latter would imply that we met inside the church, as opposed to outside in the parking lot, but, grammatically, I can still meet Bob at the church by meeting him inside the church).

  • When trying to determine the most common word used in an expression, Ngrams can be a good tool to use. When using Ngrams, though, be sure to look through the results as well, to find matches in contexts you might not have thought about. Such knowledge might prompt you to change your Ngram search to something more specific.

  • 1
    Really nice! Specially the last hint! I didn't know this site and I'm sure that it's a great tool to be used. Thanks again! About the prepositions, so I think that the best way to learn how to use each one is to reading and listening things in English. This way some combinations should be "less weird" then other and with some the time I'll know when to use then. Well, thanks a lot!
    – Pmt
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 13:39

Order of importation

This is correct. Say you import apples, bananas, and grapes. The order of importation is apples, bananas, then grapes.

Of in this context connects order with importation, indicating there is a sequence of imports. You could also say order of options, order of contestants, or order of numbers.

Order in importation

Could be correct; can be used in certain cases. The order in importation is important to getting the right supplies at the right time.

Order at importation

Not correct in this context, but it can be in others. The order at John's Deli came in today. This means an order placed at John's Deli restaurant arrived today.

  • Do you know any online content with this rules? Thanks a lot Garreh!
    – Pmt
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 17:05

Deeper, more profound answers require one to appeal to Linguistics. So I Googled "semantics of english prepositions" which revealed many references such as the following:

Applying Cognitive Linguistics to Learning the Semantics of English to, for and at: An Experimental Investigation by Andrea Tyler, Charles Mueller, Vu Ho.

At 26 pages, it is too long to reproduce here, but the following quote from p 2 of 26 (Introduction) should already convince you of and to evidence its helpfulness.

  Language teachers and researchers have long recognized that the acquisition of prepositions poses major challenges for second language learners (e.g., Celce- Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1999). One reason for this is that the semantics of prepositions are notoriously difficult to characterize. For instance, on first inspection, the distinction between prepositions such as over and above is quite unclear. On one hand, the sentence:
The picture is over the mantle,   is a near paraphrase of:   The picture is above the mantle.
On the other hand, the sentence:
Mary hung her jacket over the back of the chair
is interpreted as meaning something quite different than:
Mary hung her jacket above the back of the chair.
Additionally, prepositions tend to develop a complex set of extended meanings, for instance, over has developed at least 16 meanings, many of which do not appear to be systematically related. Although linguists have long been aware that prepositions develop complex polysemy networks, the meaning networks surrounding spatial markers (and the systematic processes of meaning extension from which they result) have only become the foci of linguistic inquiry in the last 20 years. Even the best descriptive grammars and dictionaries present the multiple meanings of spatial language as largely arbitrary. Traditional accounts have represented the semantics of English prepositions as arbitrary (Bloomfield, 1933; Frank, 1972; Chomsky, 1995). Consequently, pedagogical treatments have often suggested memorization as the best strategy. Studies show that accurate use of spatial language is one of the last elements learned and many highly proficient L2 speakers never attain native speaker-like use (e.g., Lam, 2009). Indeed, Lam found that L2 Spanish learners made virtually no gains in their mastery of the prepositions por and para over the course of four years of college Spanish.
   Cognitive Linguistics (CL) offers an alternative perspective, suggesting that the many distinct meanings associated with a particular preposition are related in systematic, principled ways (e.g., Brugman, 1988; Dewell, 1994; Dirven, 1993; Lakoff, 1987; Linder, 1982; Hawkins, 1988; Herskovits, 1986, 1988; Tyler and Evans, 2001a, 2003; Vandeloise, 1991, 1994)

Ensure to consult and try the many References on pp 22-26, which includes (on page 25) the following which I plan to read myself:

Tyler, A. & Evans, V. 2003. The Semantics of English Prepositions: Spatial Scenes, Embodied Meaning and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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