There are several prepositions which can be placed after an adjective. So I wonder which one should be chosen. Are they the same, or are there some nuances among them? Given a single sentence without context, how can a native speaker understand the sentence correctly? I want to know the process of understanding the different usages.

For example,

disappointed adj ~ (about/at sth); ~ (in/with sb/sth);sad or dissatisfied because sb has failed, some desired event has not happened, etc

  • be disappointed about/at sb's failure
  • I was disappointed with his performance.
  • I'm disappointed in you: I expected you to win.

As you can see, after the adjective "disappointed", you can use different prepositions,like "about" "at" "with" "in". Are they the same? Which element can decide the usage of preposition?

How do the native speakers learn the preposition at the beginning?

  • 2
    There's no way you can guess it perfectly. For that, you need to be a born native! And, the question you just put here has been my question since years... and yeah, not just for the prepositions, even for pronunciations of various words. They pronounce correctly though they read it for the very first time, I struggle even if I've read it before! +1 and starred! :)
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 7:55
  • Many of my American friends in a public US high school had never taken grammar classes so nobody ever told them what a preposition even was. So I am not sure that (many) English-speaking students have properly learned this. Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 8:05
  • 5
    We native speakers often cannot know the meaning of individual sentences. This is why we very often ask a learner to provide more context. As for prepositions, teachers can only present example uses, many example uses. But getting a firm grasp on the many uses and distinctions in meaning comes only by exposure to the language in natural contexts. It can take years. But the more you listen and read, the more you'll learn. (That is also how natives learn more advanced uses.) I'm learning Italian and prepositions are a pain in the arse.
    – user6951
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 8:25

3 Answers 3


The very short answer: they do it just the same way that you learned all that difficult grammar in your own mother tongue.

Slightly longer:

How does anyone learn their native language?

Well, according to linguists, they do not.

The process of getting to know how to speak your mother tongue is called acquisition, not learning.

Learning is what other people do when they learn the language as a second (or third, etc) language. They learn the rules, the grammar, and they try to apply them.

Young children subconsciously analyse the words and phrases they hear around them, and they build up a "grammar" in their head, as well as a dictionary, a thesaurus, enormous lists of collocations, etc. They don't actually sit down to study, they just absorb and analyse.

So a native speaker knows that he should say he works instead of he work, and even when he encounters a verb that he has never seen before, he knows the third person singular will get an -s in the simple present.

The amazing thing is that he knows that, even if maybe he does not know anything about grammar. Even if he doesn't know what a "verb" is, what "simple present is", or "third person singular". Even if he has never seen a grammar book, he will be able to correctly say he (new verb)s.

Just look around you at any young kids. You may think that your mother tongue is easy, because even little children speak it very well. But it's not. It's as easy or difficult as English is, and those kids (and you, when you were little) are doing what children everywhere do: they build up an understanding of the grammar of their mother tongue without even realizing it.

Ask a five-year old why he just conjugated that verb correctly, ask him in which grammar book he saw the rules for that, and at best you will get a blank stare.

You had discovered an enormous amount of grammar by the age of three, just like any kid, in any language.

This question reminds me of this old joke:

I am so glad I was not born in China, because I don't speak a word of Chinese!

  • 1
    Except many foreign/second language methodologies concentrate on exposure and acquisition rather than the study of grammar. And, for adults, their ability to analyze the language according to grammar gives them a leg-up over kids learning their first language.
    – user6951
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 8:53
  • @pazzo sure, modern teaching methods try to use acquisition instead of learning, exactly because it works more intuitively. Whether adults have an advantage because they analyze grammar remains to be seen - just look at all the questions here on ELL that stem from things going wrong in that analysis, like over-applying rules, or using over-simplified rules instead of intuitive (native-speaker) patterns. Kids become fluent in their native language much faster than (most!) adults do in a new language, so it seems the kids have the advantage :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 8:57
  • Yeah, when I said a leg-up, I was referring to this one ability only over kids, not to adults' overall situation. Second, yes it's true this ability may not apply to many 2nd/FLL,precisely because they are not being taught using acquisition methods. This is probably true of 90% of the learners here. People seem to equate learning a FL with learning chemistry, which is not how it works, as we both agree.
    – user6951
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 14:49
  • So what I mean is that learners who are aware of the acquisition process but who can analyze the grammar also, as an aid, not a methodology, knowledge of this strategy can give adults a strategy that most kids do not have. 99% of questions here could be answered by: get more exposure to the target language and you will come to realize how it works. But people (a) want to see language-acquisition as they do learning chemistry, (b) want answers now, when waiting will do much to resolve their questions.
    – user6951
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 14:51
  • @pazzo indeed, we do agree :) But let's keep finding other ways to answer questions here, as it would get quite boring answering 98% of them in the same way :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 17:29

Native speakers learn English prepositions from context and by actually communicating. This gives them a few important advantages over someone trying to learn prepositions from dictionaries.

Prepositions in phrasal verbs

The biggest advantage of learning prepositions from context is that you don't expect them to have a meaning out of context. Prepositions in English often work as parts of familiar phrases, not as words like "replace", which have a pretty clear meaning that can be understood out of context.

The fact that English prepositions work as parts of phrases is a major stumbling block for people learning English as a second language. If your native language doesn't work this way, it can be hard to believe until someone points it out, so here are a couple illustrations:

  • The phrase "disappointed in somebody" is itself a unit of meaning. You can think of it almost like a word. The word "in" in that phrase shares very little common meaning with "in" in "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah." That's the primary meaning of "in": containment. The phrase "disappointed in" echoes the primary meaning just a little bit, but the phrase has a meaning of its own. You can't understand the phrase by looking up the dictionary definitions of "disappointed" and "in" and trying to combine them.

  • The phrase "fitting in" is itself a unit of meaning. Here's an example: "When I was in high school, I had a hard time fitting in." The phrase means getting people to accept you within a social group. Notice that "in" does not introduce a prepositional phrase. There's no noun serving as the object of "fitting in". The word "in" follows the verb and changes its meaning. This is very common in English verbs.

Sometimes people call those phrases "phrasal verbs" to distinguish them from verbs whose meaning is entirely contained in one word. But really, there is no precise boundary between phrasal verbs and single-word verbs. Native speakers don't think of phrasal verbs as clearly separate from single-word verbs. Native speakers easily combine prepositions with single-word verbs in new ways, by analogy with familiar combinations, which they know from experience that other people are familiar with. This question is about "toggle in", a phrase not found in dictionaries, but which a native speaker—in context—easily understands by analogy with the familiar phrase "type in". Out of context, though, a native speaker probably couldn't figure out what "toggle in" means.

So, the only way to really understand English prepositions is to become familiar with a large number of these phrases. Then you can vary them or make new phrases by analogy with them in new situations. That's how native speakers learn them and use them. A dictionary definition can only vaguely point to the vast range of ways that a preposition seems to fit into phrases. It can't communicate the preposition's meaning in all those phrases—because the preposition really doesn't have an independent meaning of its own most of the time. I posted some more about learning the phrasal aspect of English under this question.

The rhythm of prepositions

An advantage of learning by talking is that you pick up the rhythm of the language. The rhythm of English is important for many reasons, one of which is that prepositions have different ways of fitting into a sentence depending on their grammatical role.

When a preposition introduces a prepositional phrase, as in "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah," it's normally quick and unstressed and it works rhythmically like an upbeat in music. The preposition's rhythm leads to the next stressed syllable. If there's an article between the preposition and the noun, it gets even less emphasis.

But when a preposition doesn't lead to a noun, as in "fitting in", it gets emphasis: it's stressed and said for a longer time. If you say "FITting in" (giving weak emphasis to the last two syllables, as if "in" were introducing a prepositional phrase), people won't understand you.

Regarding nuance or why people choose one preposition over another, sometimes the main reason for a choice is just to make a good, understandable rhythm. Most books and classes that teach English do not teach anything about sentence rhythm, and I've never seen a word about it in a dictionary. Prepositions have a rhythmic role that native speakers learn mostly by imitating other native speakers. Of course, you can do that, too. You can focus on the rhythm of sentences in recordings, and imitate not just the words but the rhythm and intonation, too.

Prepositions as direction words

As a native, something else you learn from English prepositions is a certain way of thinking about direction, motion, and shapes, and how to fit that information into a sentence. Specifically, a preposition after a verb of motion usually indicates the direction or destination of that motion, as in "Dinah went in." Many languages don't work this way; in the Romance languages, you would use syntax like "Dinah entered". So, as natives master English prepositions, many verbs of motion feel incomplete without a preposition to finish the thought. More information about this is here, including verbs that don't work with prepositions in this way.

Another habit of thought that native English speakers have is equating a shape with a path of motion. For example, someone might say that a pipe loops over a wooden beam. Since prepositions usually indicate direction, they play an important role here. See this answer for some illustrations of verbs of motion used this way. Note the use of the preposition "around".

As a non-native, you can explicitly focus on how prepositions add direction to verbs of motion for a while. That will help you acquire some of the same habits of thought that natives acquire in childhood. Many phrasal verbs draw upon prepositions' role as providing a direction to complete a thought, in order to make useful analogies with motion or shape.

I've never read anything specifically about how native English speakers learn prepositions. The above are just educated guesses, mostly based on common confusions of foreigners and common ways that natives fail to understand a foreigner's confusion when answering a question (suggesting that the native's habit of thought is so deeply ingrained that they don't attend to it consciously).

  • 1
    You haven't been around for quite a time! Welcome back! :)
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 7:54

No one will teach you the proper use of prepositions, especially not videos which hardly reach lowest school level. The use of prepositions is a very wide and a rather difficult area of language. Grammars don't cover this sector as it can be treated only in form of a dictionary. Grammars cover only the basics of prep usage. For a learner that should be enough. When you have reached the level of reading books, novels and other reading matter, you have to study prep problems on your own in the dictionary, no one will come and open the dictionary for you. The main problems with preps are preps with a lot of uses, such as of to for on in at and words which can have several preps after them. You have to study each case which is a problem for you separately. And it is helpful to make notes in a systematic way. There are problems e ven dictionaries have not registered. Then you have to consult several dictionaries, British ones and American ones and you can ask on forums. But there isn't a trick as some learners think. Sure use of preps is connected with hard work.

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