Confused about prepositions?

Rachael Dullahide Grammar

First, let’s explain prepositions: they’re those little words that hang off phrases and usually indicate direction in some way—for example, for, on, over, as, to. Prepositions are mostly easy (and intuitive) to use, if English is your first language. But you probably have moments when two prepositions both ‘sound right’ in a phrase. So, which to choose?

Let’s look at some examples

different from or different to?

ANSWER different from (but similar to)

align with or align to?

ANSWER align with when indicating the point of alignment (align with your plans), but align to when indicating a reason for alignment (align to achieve our plans)

compare with or compare to?

ANSWER compare with when indicating difference, but compare to when indicating similarity

try and or try to?

ANSWER try to

While we’re on this topic …

Let’s look at another expression in which we know the preposition but tend to mess up the noun: lots of. This phrase should be ‘a lot of’, because the plural ‘lots’ means multiple batches or sets.

The preposition ‘of’ has another problematic phrase too: outside of. Should we say outside of the room or just outside the room? And what if we mean outside of in the sense of ‘other than’ (e.g. outside of the occasional meeting, I’m too busy to spend time with you)?

The quick answer is that you can drop ‘of’, whatever your meaning: outside of is a colloquial expression (more commonly used in the US). I suggest you definitely drop it when meaning ‘other than’ because outside of can imply a physical location, which may confuse what you’re trying to say. If, for example, you say outside of Parliament, I have few concerns, the reader may infer you have few concerns when you’re away from Parliament OR you have few concerns other than Parliament.

If any other curly prepositional phrases have you stumped, be sure to let us know.