Recognising verb constructions following “to be”

to be verb formsThe verb “to be” can be used in descriptive clauses or as an auxiliary verb to create certain grammatical structures, such as the continuous tenses and the passive voice. This can lead to confusion when a verb or verb form follows the verb “to be” – how do you recognise which structure is being used? Consider this example: “The museum is supposed to be _______ in the morning.” (open) Opening would form the continuous tense, open would be an adjective form, opened would form a passive sentence. Each of these could be arguably correct – so how do we know the difference? Continue reading

Bird of prey and other “noun of noun” constructions

bird of prey noun phrasesSubjects formed with multiple nouns connected by of can mean consisting of, or taken from, for example ‘piece of cake’, but can also mean belonging to, or with the purpose of, such as ‘father of the bride’. ‘Bird of prey’ can be confusing, though, because it seems to have the opposite meaning – bird of prey may sound like it belongs to prey, but actually it is a predator. So how do these different examples work? Continue reading

Moby Dick Advanced Reading and Prepositions Exercise

moby dick prepositions Below are the (slightly edited) opening paragraphs of the epic, classic novel Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Published in 1851, this story is studied in schools as one of the Great American Novels, and its opening line, “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous in English literature. As a classic, it uses advanced and sometimes archaic language, making it good practice for formal (and difficult!) prose. To give you an extra challenge, this passage has missing prepositions, and it’s up to you to complete the text. Blank spaces show where there should be prepositions, the answers are given below. Continue reading

10 Easily Confused Sets of Words and Phrases Explained

easily confused words and phrasesA few weeks ago I wrote an article about the differences between the words plain and plane; it’s one of many articles I have on this site exploring confusing, or easily misunderstood, words and phrases. With so much content on this site, I thought it was time I created a quick, simple list of such articles so you can quickly learn the differences. I’ve placed example sentences beneath each heading so you can get an idea of what you’ll learn.  Continue reading

Where are prepositions placed in English sentences?

prepositions word orderHow can we define the rules for placing a preposition in a sentence? Before a noun? After a verb? One of the additions to the second edition of Word Order in English Sentences is a guide to prepositions. Though they are often connected to other parts of a sentence, such as noun phrases, and often have specific or flexible rules, like adverbs, prepositions have some general rules that can help with understanding how they fit into a sentence, explained in detail below. Continue reading

What’s the difference between ‘smile to’ and ‘smile at’?

smile to vs smile atWhat is the difference between She smiled at him. and She smiled to him.? Sometimes, there is none. Other times, one might clearly be correct (or incorrect). It’s useful to look at individual examples of preposition use like this with examples and explanations to get a grasp of them in practice, as I have previously covered with topics such as display with in and on, or by/on foot. So what can the difference between smile to and smile at tell us? Continue reading

The difference between ‘from’, ‘out of’ and ‘among’

from out of amongCertain prepositions like from, out of and among may be used interchangeable in certain contexts, in this comparison with all essentially meaning chosen from a group. For example, these three sentences essentially mean the same thing:

  • I had to choose which I liked best from ten ice creams.
  • I had to choose which I liked best out of ten ice creams.
  • I had to choose which I liked best among ten ice creams.

In this case, it easy to understand that choice was from among a group of ice creams, whichever preposition you use. However, each preposition has its own nuances, and has slightly different meanings – differences that have no effect in some contexts, but make a sentence wrong in others. Continue reading

Mixed Preposition Phrases Exercise

mixed prepositional phrases exercisePrepositional phrases and phrasal verbs often have very specific patterns that are difficult to guess. This means it is sometimes necessary to learn such phrases individually. The following exercise will test a range of prepositional phrases and phrasal verbs in a selection of sentences. Answers are given underneath, with brief explanations.

Remember, in prepositional phrases, we use a specific preposition to relate one noun (subject or object) to another – in phrasal verbs the preposition is combined with a verb as a particle to create a very specific action.  Continue reading

Using “agree” and prepositions – with, on, to, about

agree with prepositionsDepending on the object you can agree with, on, about or to something. All of these prepositions can be connected to a noun, so the nature of the object decides the appropriate preposition. Here’s which is which: Continue reading

Should you say “on foot” or “by foot”?

walking on foot or by footWhen we talk about walking, we can say you go on foot or by foot, as a mode of transport. Which preposition is correct? Technically, on is more accurate, and common, and in exams you may be marked incorrect for using by foot. But why is by foot a mistake? Or is it a mistake at all? This is a perfect example of English grammar as a matter of style, not accuracy – and as you’ll see here, both are actually possible. Continue reading