Why it’s a bad idea to translate the prepositions

One of the most common mistakes I see students make is in the use of prepositions. Do you find prepositions to be difficult? Many times the answer is, yes. Part of this may be because of the way that you were taught prepositions but it may also be because of how you think about these particular types of words. My aim in this series of article is to help you understand what may be the core of why you may be having trouble with English prepositions.


Let’s start by asking a few questions. Are you translating prepositions from your native language?Do you have trouble sometimes using the correct preposition to describe the place of an object? Do you have trouble using prepositions to express time? And finally do you have trouble using the correct preposition when it comes to using phrasal verbs? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, keep reading.


Translating prepositions from Spanish or any other language.

Let’s begin by defining the word preposition so that we understand exactly what it is that we are getting into.

Preposition– a word that describes the relationship between two or more objects or ideas.

By this definition we can safely say that these words are abstract ideas, meaning that we have to visualise in our heads the position of the objects relative to each other. This makes it nearly impossible to accurately translate unless the other language has a word that means exactly the same thing. Let’s take the words above, over, about and on as an example. If we translate each word with it’s possible translations we run into a bit of a problem.

As you can see in the figure, for each of those English prepositions we have one or more Spanish prepositions that repeats for each one! This is what can make prepositions so confusing sometimes. On top of that, there can be multiple prepositions to describe one position, such as below, under, beneath and underneath. And as if that weren’t enough, think about how many prepositions there are in your language. In the Spanish language there are 23 prepositions. Now compare that to the 94 one-word prepositions plus the 56 complex prepositions in English. It is a daunting thing to think about, but by no means is it impossible. The good news is that you don’t need to memorise every single one, and some of the important ones will be looked at in the next few articles.


Hopefully this post has helped you understand why it isn’t a good idea to translate the prepositions to your native language, but rather, you should learn to visualise the idea of the word.

For homework, look at the picture and see if you can identify correctly what word should be used for the positions of the items.

· table

· lamp

· lights

· chairs

· place mats

· bench

· flowers

· plants


In the next article we will discuss what the correct word would be to express the position of each item on the list and what we visualise in our heads when we say it.