English prepositions are traditionally considered to be challenging for foreign language learners: “an area of almost universal difficulty among second language learners of English” (Low 1988: 137), “a traditional and recurring nightmare for all learners of English” (Littlemore & Low 2006: 284), and “the bête noire of both teachers and learners, being impossible to teach and impossible to learn” (Gilquin & Granger 2011: 60). A number of reasons have been advanced to explain why prepositions might be difficult to acquire. First, most prepositions are highly polysemous, making it challenging for learners to intuitively grasp a particular preposition’s meaning(s); definitions of ‘at’ in various online English advanced learners’ dictionaries, for instance, range from 7 to 19 main sense entries.
Second, learners may sometimes find it difficult to
tease apart the nuances of various prepositions
which encode slightly varied aspects of a single domain, as might be the case
with prepositions encoding a time relationship (e.g. in the morning, on Monday
morning, at night). Third, there may
be a mismatch between English prepositions and those in a learner’s L1
(assuming that language has prepositions), resulting in potential negative L1
transfer. Finally, textbooks and other reference works frequently treat
preposition choice as arbitrary and unpredictable as a result; rote
memorization is often recommended as a solution, along with a healthy dose of
cramming and the development of good dictionary habits (see e.g. Lindstromberg 1998: 227; Parrott 2010: 94; Taylor 1988: 299, all
of whom either discuss or suggest one or more of these options).
This paper presents
empirical evidence into the use of prepositions in learner English, to shed
additional light upon the challenge prepositions present.