“All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” — Robert Fulghum

And all I really need to know about prepositions I learned in seventh grade — from Mrs. Perkins. At least I think it was her. You see, I recently discovered, mimeographed on a sheet of light yellow paper, a faded, handwritten list entitled “Correct Prepositions.” And just above its 18 no-compromise rules was the direction, “Learn to use the following prepositions correctly.”

It could have come from Mrs. Blackmore the year before, but I’d feel pretty comfortable wagering a sizable sum that it came from Mrs. Perkins since she’s the teacher who had the dubious honor of teaching us little angels English during our final two years at Peru Elementary School. (Why have I kept the list all these years? Because I like lists — but that’s another story.)

Since I’m sure that you’re as eager to hear about these rules as I am to share them, here they are:

1. Agree to (a suggestion); agree with (a person).

2. Be angry at or about (a thing). Be angry with (a person).

3. Because of absence, because of sickness. (I’m not sure what Mrs. Perkins’ point was here but I memorized it!)

4. Begin at 3 o’clock; begin about 3 o’clock; but DON’T begin at about 3 o’clock”.

5. Use “behind” instead of “in back of”; behind the chair.

6. Beside the house (at the side of); besides the house (in addition to).

7. Between the house and garage (NOT “in between”).

8. Borrow from an aunt; buy from a neighbor; take from (NOT “off of”).

9. Comply with (NOT “comply to”).

10. To explain unlikeness use “differ from” when referring to things; when referring to a person, you “differ with” them.

11. Different from.

12. Divide between two persons; divide among three or more.

13. Fell into the lake (NOT “in”).

14. Free from obligation (NOT “of”).

15. Keep off the grass (NOT “off of”).

16. Report at headquarters; report to the captain; report for duty.

17. Try to succeed (NOT “try and”).

18. Wait for a friend (NOT “on”).

There they are, the correct way to use prepositions according to Mrs. Perkins. It doesn’t matter if some of the rules have changed over the decades, I’m still convinced that I know how to use them because she told me so. (Also, I hate change of any kind, but that’s another story.)

I do wish that she had covered some of the other linguistic predicaments in which I sometimes find myself. For example, I’m never sure anymore whether I’m standing “in line” or “on line.” And I always used to “call in” to work when I wanted to take the day off, but now I understand that you have to “call out.”

And one last thing. I’m pretty sure all this prepositioning would not sit well with Mrs. Word Guy if she found out what I was doing. Please let’s keep this between you and me (NOT “in between”).

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: