One of the most common questions that English learners ask me is, “How do you use in, at, and on?” or, “What are the rules for using in, at, of, for?”
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why so many English learners were asking this question. Did the student want to know about prepositions of time (in the morning, at night, on Tuesday)? Did the student want to know about prepositions of place (on the table, in the box)? Those are all easy prepositions to learn and memorize, and they are the first prepositions taught in school.
I finally realized people were not asking about prepositions. They were asking about collocations.
A collocation is a combination of two or more words that are commonly used together, in a way that sounds natural to a native English speaker.
This is very important to understand. The key to learning English is learning collocations, not rules. You have to learn the words that go together.
Learn more: What are “collocations”?
It’s also very important to understand that prepositions DO NOT translate from your language into English. For example, many students who speak Portuguese or Spanish as a native language often say, “Have you been IN Mexico?” In English, we say “Have you been TO Mexico?” What’s the difference? Using IN tells people that you are still learning English, while using TO makes you sound more natural and more like a native speaker.
Here are some examples of verb + preposition collocations:
pay for (something)
laugh at (someone)
concentrate on (something)
lie in bed / lie on your back
invite (someone) to (something)
This doesn’t mean that pay is always followed by for. It just means you need to use for if you are talking about what you bought:
“Have you paid for the tickets?”
~ “No, I haven’t paid yet.”
Collocations are different than phrasal verbs. In a phrasal verb, the verb and the preposition have a meaning different from the individual words. In a verb + preposition collocation, the meaning of the verb doesn’t change, but the preposition must be used with the verb. It is not important to memorize which is a phrasal verb and which is a collocation. Native speakers don’t memorize the different categories. They just know that these words go together.
Here are some examples of adjective + proposition collocations:
Here are some examples of preposition + noun collocations:
on a first date
in a job interview
in a straight line
on a trip
at a party
in a traffic jam
Collocations are not limited to prepositions. Collocations are any words that go together in a way that sounds natural to a native speaker.
Learn more: What are “collocations”?
Now, I know the next question you are going to ask. “Do you have a list of collocations? Where can I find a list of collocations?”
You can’t learn collocations by memorizing a list. You learn collocations by listening. You learn collocations by reading. Over and over again. When you see or hear a new word, pay attention to the words around the new word. The new word could be part of a collocation.
You learn collocations by listening to the English Teacher Melanie Podcast & studying the notes.
You learn collocations by using dictionaries specifically for English learners. Both the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary are excellent dictionaries. When you look up a word in a dictionary for English learners, the listing will tell you collocations with that word, as well as phrases & idioms that include that word.
Very nice! I´m in intermediate level of English and I have some difficulty with ‘in’, ‘at’ and ‘on’. I´ve never thought about them in collocations. Actually, I´ll start learning collocations on upper intermediate of my course and I´ll certainly use this article. Cheers from Brazil!!
Hugo Jimenez says
Hi Melanie, that’s one of the best explanation to learn English more easily, (for me as a ESL), using “collocation”, linstead the classical grammar rules. My congrats to you.Great job.
Danilo Sanchez says
Hi Melanie. How are you? I hope you are well. Glad to see you back. Great explanation about collocations. I look forward to listen to more podcasts from you soon. Greetings from Brazil.
This is interesting…
In a priority list or on priority. Which is correct?
The easiest way to figure out which is correct is to look up the world “list” in a dictionary for English learners, like the Macmillan Online Dictionary or the Merriam-Webter’s Learner’s Dictionary.
These dictionaries will always tell you the collocations for the specific word. In your example, “priority” acts like an adjective to describe what kind of list you’re talking about, so you are looking for a collocation for “list”, in this case a preposition + noun combination for “list.”
Hi teacher, at the end or in the end? At the beginning or in the beginning? Which of these ones is correct?
Here, context is important. Both options are correct, but in different situations.
Usually it’s AT THE END OF and AT THE BEGINNING OF, when you are talking specifically about place, for example:
at the end of the day (this is also a phrase that means “used for saying what you consider is the most important thing about a situation after thinking about it“)
at the end of the line
at the beginning of the song
IN THE END is a phrase that means “finally, after a period of time or thought.” IN THE BEGINNING are the first words of King James Version of the Bible. The Macmillan online dictionary has a very good comparison of these two phrases at the end of the post:
Thank you teacher melanie! you’re awesome! <3
María Paula says
I had been wrong for a very long time!
Spanish is my native language and I thought it was correct to say “Have you been in” now that I know, I must change that inmidiately.
Thank you very much, this post helped me a lot. :)