San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Those Capricious Prepositions

Areader recently wrote asking me to explain the difference between para and por as I had explained the difference between ser and estar.

Well, I can’t really claim that I explained the difference between ser and estar. I can only hope I gave you a direction to go in.

Alas! I can only hope to do the same for para and por.Why? Because they are prepositions – at least part of the time – sneaky little words that usually come dead last in language learning. In fact, most people, no matter how good they are, never get them down pat.

I once had a writing student, a perfectly normal North American girl, whose writing was well expressed, intelligent and grammatical, with one startling exception: nearly all her prepositions were incorrect. Her parents were from Lebanon, and she had grown up speaking English with parents who, though they had lived in the United States for more than 20 years, still used the wrong prepositions.

The problem is that prepositions are pervsive, deceptively simple and arbitrary, which makes for a deadly combination.

Before I go any further, let’s look at what prepositions are and what I mean by “arbitrary.”

I can’t give you a good definition of “preposition,” only one that would confuse you. If you don’t believe me, just look up the definition in any dictionary or grammar reference.

What works better for a grammatical layman is a trick that I used to teach to my students: take the words “the desks” and add connecting words (not verbs) such as “in” and “on” to make up phrases that hang together as a unit. The words that fit are prepositions; those that don’t aren’t. Thus, “by the desks” and “between the desks” tell you that “by” and “between” are prepositions, whereas “very the desks” and “however the desks” tell you that “very” and “however” are not. Exceptions include a few odds and ends and prepositions referring to time periods.

For the latter, you can use “the vacation,” such as “during the vacation” and “since the vacation.” It’s not foolproof, but it works better than anything else I’ve found.

Once you understand what prepositions are, you can see how pervasive they are. You can also see how simple they are – in your own language, that is. In another language, they have the irritating habit of refusing translation. They are arbitrary.

What I mean is that, in most cases, there is little consistent correlation of prepositions from one language to another. For example, in “Fuimos a Tamarindo” (“We went to Tamarindo”), “a” means “to,” as it does in many other instances; but in “A María le robaron el carro” (“Someone stole the car from María”), it doesn’t (to us). Then there’s “Te llevo con tu madre” (“I’ll take you to your mother”). And I bet you thought that “con” meant “with.”

The point is that people often memorize that “a” means “to,” for example, and leave it at that. And so it happens that someone can speak a second language fluently, even nearly perfectly, except for those capricious and despotic little prepositions.

Teachers often give students vocabulary lists to memorize. The following is what a vocabulary list of just four common prepositions might look like. Imagine trying to make any use of it in real speech. a to, at, for, by, on, from de of, from, about, with, by, in en in, on, at, by sobre about, on, upon, over

So what can you do about it? For one thing, all you guilt addicts can stop feeling bad that you continue to commit preposition errors. Beyond that, it is, as with much of language learning, a question of awareness, acceptance and letting go of translation.

Many years ago, when I was living in Italy and just learning to be a teacher, I had a student who, after having lived in the country for a year, was still completely incapable of handling the language. I kept trying to understand why. I wanted to help him. Then, one day, he told me that his problem with the Italian language was that “the Italians aren’t very intelligent because they get their words mixed up.”He went on to argue that “instead of saying ‘I live on

5th street

’ and ‘The boys are playing in the street,’ they say ‘I live in

5th street

’ and ‘The boys are playing on the street.’”

“The dummies get it backwards,” he smugly concluded.

When I tried to explain that prepositions in any language were arbitrary, and that living in the street and playing on the street were correct for Italian, he angrily refused to accept it. It was at that moment that I began to understand the language-culture connection. That is, people who can’t see beyond their own culture cannot see beyond their own language either. This particular student was never going to learn Italian because he was never going to stop thinking that American English was the standard for all other languages.

In other words, learn to love prepositions for the capricious little words they are. Then, perhaps, you can come to love the inconsistencies and capriciousness of the Latino culture as well.

As for para and por, just stay tuned.


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