A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

The Role of Semantic Functions in Learning English Prepositions

M. Ponmani & S. Mekala


The essential requisite of a successful written text is to employ the language effectively in a given context. So it becomes necessary for English major students to master the nuances of the language system. In fact, students find it difficult to learn the function words rather than content words. Function words such as prepositions  show the relationship between groups of words. Carmen (2004) opines that ESL students do not possess the knowledge and awareness related to the function of prepositions. The function and usage of prepositions are perennial constraints for ESL learners. Though the students have learnt grammatical aspects for many years, they still struggle to employ prepositions in English sentences. Their inappropriate use of prepositions generally affect the understanding of written texts, as prepositions are stressed and audible in written communication. According to Collins (1991), three out of ten most frequent words of the English language are prepositions. Prepositions are more significant in language use, as they belong to active parts of speech in English. Besides being significant structural elements, prepositions also serve as essential discourse markers and basic components in producing written texts (Carmen, 2004). The learners find it difficult to systemize English prepositions, due to their sheer number and polysemous nature. In English, there are almost 100 prepositions attributed to multiple meanings. The meaning of prepositions varies according to the context. The learners are not able to comprehend the contextual and syntactic meaning of prepositions and use it in relevant places. In this respect, this paper examines the cause for difficulty in incorporating appropriate prepositions in their writing. Further, it attempts to find out the prepositions that are misused by learners.

Theoretical Framework

            Preposition is a word that shows the relationship between noun or pronoun and the other words in a sentence. It is always used before a noun or pronoun and it links nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence. The word or phrase that the prepositions introduce is called the object of a sentence. According to Lyons (1968), the term preposition is employed to refer to a class of invariable words, which has a grammatical or local function and which tend to occur immediately before the noun or noun phrase they modify. Quirk and Greenbaum (1973) state that a preposition expresses a relationship between two entities; one being represented by the prepositional complement of various types of relational meaning. These relationships include those of time, position, direction and various degrees of mental and emotional states (Castro, M.C.S.A, 2013). Thomson and Martinet (1986) state that prepositions never change their form regardless of the case, gender etc. of the word they are referring to.

Types of Prepositions

On the basis of syllable, prepositions can be classified into simple and complex prepositions.

Simple prepositions are monosyllabic and unstressed whereas complex prepositions are polysyllabic and stressed. For example,

Simple prepositions - in, on, at, for, with, from etc.

Complex prepositions – Two words: because of, due to, instead of, etc.

                                   Three words: in spite of, on behalf of, as far as, etc.

Irrespective of this, prepositions can be categorized on the basis of their functions. They are: 

  1. Prepositions of Time – in, on, at, etc.
  2. Prepositions of Place – in, on, at, etc.
  3. Prepositions of Direction – to, towards, through, etc.
  4. Prepositions of Agent – by, with, etc.
  5. Prepositions of Instrument – by, with, on, etc.
  6. Prepositional Phrase – listen to, look at, consist of, etc.

Apart from these types, Biber et al. (2000) have differentiated preposition on the basis of their meaning and context. They are,

Free Prepositions – They have an independent meaning and do not depend on any specific words in the context.

Bound prepositions – They have little independent meaning and do depend on other specific words (often the preceding verb) in the context.

Prepositions have been called the biggest little words in English. They are usually quite short and insignificant looking but they have very important functions (Mus, 2012). Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999) have asserted that prepositions are generally troublesome to learners, for whom English is a foreign or second language. It implies that in spite of having good knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, ESL/EFL learners seem to have difficulties with the correct usage of prepositions. Dulay & Burt, 1972; Tucker & Scott, 1974; and Hamdallah, 1988 have revealed that it takes a long time for the learner of English as a second/foreign language to acquire prepositions. So, it necessitates analysing the learners’ errors in prepositions.

Research Questions:

The study aims at finding the answer for the following questions:

  1. What are the most common errors in prepositions that are committed by students?
  2. Why do students commit those errors?

Methodology & Participants

The study was conducted with 51 second year B.A English Literature students of Sri Bharathi Arts & Science College for Women, Pudukkottai.These students were expected to be proficient in English and were supposed to express their thoughts and subject content in error free sentence structures. All homogeneous (female) students had passed higher secondary level of examination. Most of the students had regional medium of instruction (Tamil) during their schooling. All students had Tamil as their mother tongue except one student. The girls were from both rural and urban backgrounds and had studied English as a subject for more than ten years in school. In spite of that, most of them were not good at writing and their proficiency in English was very low.

Diagnostic Test

            In order to find out the students’ ability to use English prepositions a diagnostic test was conducted. Gap-fill exercise was assigned to the students. Seven monosyllabic and four polysyllabic prepositions were tested. The students were asked to fill the appropriate prepositions in the given 32 blanks.

Results and Discussion

            The students’ errors in employing appropriate prepositions in the given blanks were analysed.

Table 1. Correct and Wrong Usage of Prepositions

Total Correct Use % Error %
1632 624 38.24 1008 61.76


Table 1 shows that the number of incorrect usage of prepositions is 1008 out of 1632 English prepositions and the percentage of errors is 61.76% to the total use of prepositions. It implies that the learners are not aware of the function and usage of prepositions.

Research Question 1

In order to find out the most common errors in prepositions that are committed by students, frequency of errors in simple and complex preposition were calculated.

Table 2. Frequency of Errors in Simple and Complex Prepositions

Prepositions   Use Target Frequency % Error Frequency %
Simple Prepositions In 510 31.25 265 26.29
To 306 18.75 201 19.94
Of 204 12.50 169 16.77
At 153 9.375 99 9.82
For 153 9.375 85 8.43
From 51 3.125 22 2.18
With 51 3.125 26 2.58
Complex Prepositions Into 51 3.125 50 4.96
Over 51 3.125 34 3.37
Across 51 3.125 28 2.78
After 51 3.125 29 2.88
Total 1632 100% 1008 100%


It is observed from table 2 that most of the students committed errors in using simple prepositions. In particular, the students found it difficult to employ the prepositions such as ‘in, to, of, at and for’. The error frequencies of the prepositions are as follows: ‘in (26.29%), to (19.94%), of (16.77%), at (9.82%) and for (8.43%). In spite of the common use of these prepositions, students were not able to apply it correctly because of the polysemous nature of prepositions. Polysemy is a semantic characteristic of words that have multiple meanings (Koffi, 2010). For example, it was found that the preposition ‘at’ has seven different meanings under different instances (Hudson, 1979). Driven (1993) exemplifies how the usage of the preposition ‘at’ is usually perceived in terms of ‘space’ and ‘time’ but it can be extended to ‘state’, ‘area’, ‘manner’, ‘circumstances’ and ‘cause’.

  1. Place : at the railway station
  2. Time : at an early date
  3. State : at work
  4. Area : good at guessing
  5. Manner : at full speed
  6. Circumstance : at these words
  7. Cause : laugh at

This study confirms that students’ most common errors occur in polysemic prepositions.

Research Question 2

The students commit errors in prepositions due to the unmarkedness nature of it. A preposition which encodes seven or more than seven meanings is considered to be unmarked prepositions, while those with less than seven meanings are considered marked prepositions. In the diagnostic test, prepositions like ‘in, to, of, at and for’ are unmarked prepositions, whereas ‘from, with, into, over, across, and after’ are marked prepositions. The percentage of errors was substantially high in unmarked prepositions than marked prepositions. It is inferred that learners have found it difficult to learn prepositions that have multiple meanings. The learners often use the following prepositions erroneously: ‘in instead of at’, ‘to instead of for’, ‘of instead of in’ and vice versa due to its unmarkedness nature.

For example, 

  1. Palaniappan lives atin London.
  2. I wrote a letter forto my mother yesterday. 
  3. I have arranged a room to for you at in my home.
  4. My house is located in at the foothills in of the Vindhya Range. 

These sentences indicate that in spite of frequent, regular and common use of prepositions such as ‘in, at, to, for, of,’ students find it difficult to use them because of its multiple functional meanings. Prepositions that have many semantic functions are comparatively difficult for the students.


            Though the use of prepositions is listed in common usage, they pose great challenge for ESL learners. The use of appropriate prepositions is essential to achieve communicative competence, as prepositions facilitate all circumstantial relations in the given context. The ability to use correct prepositions avoids misconception in the language usage. Especially in any written context, prepositions act as discourse markers in comprehending the text cohesively. In spite of frequency and familiarity in learners’ language data, they find it difficult to systemize prepositions that have many meanings. In this study, the learners have committed considerable number of errors in using prepositions such as: ‘in, to, of, at and for’ having multiple semantic functions. It is inferred from this study that polysemous nature or unmarkedness of prepositions are the challenging aspects of comprehension and are considered as significant constraints in the use of prepositions for learners in their academic writing.


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M. Ponmani is a Research Scholar in the Department of Humanities,National Institute of Technology, Trichy. Her research interests include Error Analysis and Second Language Learning.


S. Mekalais an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Humanities at NIT-Trichy. Her area of specialization is Curriculum Design, Teaching and Learning Methods and Business Communication.