We have had a lot of "which preposition goes here" questions. These are by their nature very specific and localized, and are also not usually particularly interesting. I think we need some more specific guidelines on how to ask good questions about preposition use as well as how to politely close questions that do not meet these requirements.

Here are some recent examples of preposition questions for reference:
1. Is it common to use 'between' with the preposition 'to'
2. Is 'of' necessary in 'all of'
3. Perform magic to children vs perform magic for children
4. Reducing degeneracies of/from/in FKK transmitter
5. "Acted in the benefit of" vs "acted for the benefit of" vs "acted to the benefit of"
6. For the current vs in the current
7. "Muse on" vs "Muse about"
8. Appealing for or appealing to

I admit the possibility that I have developed a bias against preposition questions. I list the examples above not to judge their worthiness, but merely to help formulate criteria for these kinds of questions.

Are "what preposition do I use" questions good questions for this site? If not, how can we make them better?

Prepositions pose more communication problems for learners of English as well as for native speakers than any other part of speech. In addiction, as "Nortonn S" has demonstrated, there are circumstances when prepostions cause difficulties due to a variety of factors; for instance: "he graduated high school in 2008" or "he graduated from high school in 2008", "he never wrote of it to anyone" or "he wrote nothing about it". –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 4 '12 at 17:46
@XavierVidalHernández: Do you think we should seek professional help about this "addiction"? –  Robusto Sep 5 '12 at 15:46
@Robusto Xavier implies that it's NortonnS who has the addiction, so presumably professional help can be localised. –  Andrew Leach Sep 7 '12 at 14:40
@Robusto ... No! ... the "addiction" was only the premise of the answer I posted! ... please, see the specific-my-meta-question on this issue ... –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 7 '12 at 16:01
... hello @Andrew! ... it need a good sense of humor to understand your comment! Sorry, but I have still not developed it! ... –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 7 '12 at 16:10

4 Answers 4

I have no problem with good questions about prepositions. However, too many preposition questions are irksomely similar, and read a lot like a Mad Lib:

I recently found the word _______________________ (verb), but I want to know, is it better to say:

_____________ (same verb) __________ (short preposition),


_____________ (same verb again) __________ (different short preposition)?

Which is preferred?

And that's it! Oh, every once in a while, someone will try to ward off downvotes by adding this caveat:

I tried searching for an answer on Google, but couldn't find an answer there.

Sorry, but I think such questions need to be sharply downvoted, or greatly enhanced. No research effort is shown. (Note: Maybe that sounded contentious, but please don't downvote my answer here until you've read all the way to the end.)

Before I discuss how I'd recommend fixing this question, let's create a hypothetical ELU question by filling in my "Mad Lib" with the verb dance, and the prepositions to and with:

Dance to the music, or Dance with the music?

I recently heard a song called Dance to the Music, but I once had a music teacher tell me, "You need to dance with the music," meaning, with the beat of the music. So, I want to know, which is it better to say? Dance to, or dance with? Which is the more appropriate preposition? Thanks in advance.

As I said, such questions – presented that way – are likely to exasperate a lot of ELU regulars, who won't care how the O.P. dances, so long as the music isn't being blared too loudly. So, what kind of research can be done, and how should it be expounded upon?

Let me rewrite the question, including some research findings this time:

Dance with the music, or Dance to the music?

I recently heard a song called Dance to the Music, but I once had a music teacher tell me, "You need to dance with the music," meaning, with the beat of the music. So, I am trying to figure out, which is it better to say? Dance to, or dance with? Which is the more appropriate preposition?

When I first used Google, many results for "Dance to the Music" were referencing the song, so I didn't get very good answers there.

So, I tried using Google books instead, but I found out that Anthony Powell wrote a twelve-novel sequence, called A Dance to the Music of Time. That made it hard to find good examples from those results, also.

Both "dance to the music" and "dance with the music" returned millions of results on Google, so I don't think I can get an answer just based on hit counts.

I'm wondering if that's just two ways to say pretty much the same thing? Or if one preposition might imply dancing in time with the beat.

When I looked up the word "to" in the dictionary, I found this definition:

8) accompanied by ⇒ dancing to loud music

While the word "with" had:

2) accompanying; in the company of ⇒ the lady you were with

I couldn't figure out if those mean the same thing or not. The dictionary meanings seem a little bit different, but I still found a lot of references to "dance with the music."

Now, I'm not saying that everyone would be frustrated with the initial question, or that nobody would downvote the revised question, but I'll bet the revised question would get many more upvotes than downvotes, while the initial question would not be welcomed so warmly, nor appreciated nearly as much.

In a nutshell, the O.P. should:

  1. Search for the phrases in corpuses, or in articles and books1
  2. Look up the definitions in the dictionary
  3. Summarize the results, and present them in the question

This achieves three main objectives:

  1. It shows the community that the O.P. made a good-faith effort to answer the question through their own research.
  2. It spares the community from having to look up basic definitions and paste them into their answers, since some of that work has already been done in the question.
  3. It clarifies where the confusion lies, so that there won't be so many "false starts" when people try to answer the question.

Now, one last point, for those who are stammering, "But... but... but...".2 Some will argue that there's no way for new users to know they should do all that. (My reply: True; feel free to post a link to this meta answer, and let them use this as a helpful guide for their second question.) Some may argue this is too demanding, that it is too much work (My reply: Why? I do research like that when I answer questions – why should askers get off so lightly?) And some may argue that, by the time someone has done all that research, they may find an answer, so there'd be no need to ask the question. (My reply: Exactly; we shouldn't be asking questions here on the board if the questions can be easily answered using some basic search techniques).

1 Incidentally, I hadn't heard of Powell's series until I started researching this example question.
2 Or maybe my last point should be to those who are stammering, "But... but... but..." – I'm not sure... ;^)

Regarding your very last point: Let's assume they find an answer, then they still might ask the question here and answer it themselves if they do think the question/answer are very interesting and/or likely to be helpful for any future readers/questioners/etc. –  Em1 Sep 18 '12 at 7:06

Prepositions are tricky to use and the only way to get them right most of the time is to be born in a country that speaks English. So I think it makes sense to allow people to ask them.

However, there is a strong bias on this site towards being anti-ELL, that is, a notion that english.stackexchange.com is a site for fluent users. I don't hold to that but I can see how preposition questions might not fit that vision, and might be better for the mythical ell.stackexchange.com.

Finally, as to the questions being too-localized, I think it's beneficial to provide examples of preposition use, because examples are one of the best ways to learn them. So even though the individual questions are localized, they serve a purpose. In a sense, each preposition question is basically asking for one answer from the "what are all the ways to use preposition X" (but THAT question would get nuked for being a "list").

My vote is to allow these questions. But we need to ruthlessly close dupes.

"There is a strong bias on this site towards being anti-ELL, a notion that ELU is a site for fluent users." I disagree with that. There's is a strong bias here against anyone (native or no) asking basic, simple, shallow questions, with scant elaboaration on what research was done, or why an O.P. is still confused. When a non-native is downvoted for a bad question, the presumption is, "They don't like me because I'm not good at English." The issue is NOT whether you're fluent or novice; the issue is: can you frame your question in a way that won't make an expert sigh and do an eye roll? –  J.R. Sep 4 '12 at 21:42
@J.R. ... yes, you are correct and I agree with you, but vote results may differ materially as a result of factors differently identified; if the community considers that such particular other factors may be relevant to cast positive votes, no one can impede it! –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 4 '12 at 22:27
@Xavier Does that mean "I agree, but others mightn't"? –  user16269 Sep 4 '12 at 22:35
@DavidWallace: I think he means, "Yes, but people will still downvote crappy questions." –  J.R. Sep 4 '12 at 23:02
@JR I am in full concordance with your expressed opinions in this matter, but only wish to pass, and possibly perpetuate, an ironic comment with respect to the verbosity that I perceive as an attribute of the utterance inspiring both my earlier pronouncement and your response to the same. –  user16269 Sep 4 '12 at 23:07
What J.R. & David Wallace said. And Mr. Shiny and New - I'm not keen on having so many questions about which preposition to use, but unless they really are so basic they're General Reference, I think we just have to at least tolerate them. –  FumbleFingers Sep 5 '12 at 3:06
@J.R.: I have been told in the chat room that one of the tests for "GR" is "would a native speaker ever ask this question? no? closed." –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 5 '12 at 17:14
@Mr.Shiny: Three responses to that: (1) Such a litmus test doesn't imply an anti-ELL bias, it implies a bias against overly simplistic questions. (2) If you heard that in chat, that doesn't mean it's a unanimously-held viewpoint – no fair to take one person's sentiment and paint the whole community with that broad brush. (3) That's the first I've ever heard of that test; I've voted to close more than 90 times, but that has never been my sole criterion. Again, I don't think we're dealing with an "anti-ELL bias", it's more a desire to not see the site overrun with inanely simplistic questions. –  J.R. Sep 5 '12 at 19:13
@J.R. I can only speak to what I've observed. I'm not trying to accuse anyone of anything. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 6 '12 at 12:41

I share your distaste for these questions. However, as Xavier points out, it's precisely these matters which unsophisticated users are most likely to stumble over; in a sense, they're our cost of doing business.

I suggest that the most appropriate approach is to be particularly rigorous on the "General Reference" aspect: require posters to consult reputable dictionaries, report the definitions they found, and define precisely what ambiguity they find in these definitions. At worst, they'll go away when they find out that they're expected to do the basic work; at best, they'll learn what a dictionary is and isn't good for and raise questions which are of interest.

... I agree with you and hope EL&U continues to assist their members in using prepositions with more precision, especially when ambiguity can arise or when dictionaries are not of great utility to the case. +1 –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 4 '12 at 20:32
@XavierVidalHernández s/continue/keep/; s/assist/help/; s/memb/us/; s/with more precision/better/; s/not of/of no/; s/tility/se/; s/ to the case//; –  tchrist Sep 4 '12 at 22:37
@tchrist ... yes, you are right! ... language must be more simple as possible, but language is information too; and I pose attention to categorization of information in the construction of cognitive maps! "cogito ergo sum" someone said! –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Sep 4 '12 at 22:52
@tchrist- Where do you get the Vim interface for SE sites? I want it. :-) –  Jim Sep 18 '12 at 7:29

I think most of the current distaste for preposition questions is attributable solely to one individual's perverse abuse of the SE system (namely NortonnS).

That said, there are still numerous ways that preposition questions are poorly worded. The questions should be treated not as a general problem but individually; if they are too local or general reference, then vote or flag to close. If they are poorly worded, comment and/or edit.

With five new ones this morning, too. –  tchrist Sep 9 '12 at 14:52

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