Prepositions of Place – Making TOEFL Easier

Whenever I ask a new student taking my TOEFL preparation course “Curso Preparatório TOEFL”, what they think is the most difficult thing in writing, most say prepositions.  Is it true?  Not really.  But it is where many students make mistakes in their essays.  Prepositions are just vocabulary. The problem occurs for several reasons, however.  First, there are many different kinds of preposition usage.  Prepositions of time and place, prepositions that collocate with adjectives, verbs and nouns, and prepositions that are part of a standard or idiomatic expression. When you read something in English, you never really pay attention to the prepositions because they naturally make sense. But when you write, you have a problem, and when in doubt, you’re going to choose the one that makes sense in your language, which could be correct, or it could be wrong.

However, for certain types of prepositions, you can follow some basic rules that will make sure you are right, far more often than being wrong.  Let’s use prepositions of place for this exercise.

We’re only interested in the ones that people get wrong in their TOEFL writing, and those are the correct use of AT, ON, and IN.  To build a simple effective rule we’re going to think geometrically. 


Let’s start with something that has a “border”, whether the border is real or virtual.


Once you step over that border you are basically “IN”  it.  So what types of things have borders.

Countries: I am in Brazil.  The Great Pyramids are in Egypt

Continents:  France is in Europe.

Cities:  I live in London.

Neighborhoods:  He lives in Brooklyn

Parks:  I was walking in the park today, and an old man asked me for help.

For closed spaces, it should be even more clear that we use “IN”  in the museum, the bank, in the stadium, etc.

Are there exceptions?  The only one I can really think of is “a farm” or “a ranch”.  Unfortunately, we say “on the farm/ranch”. Farms have fields, and it is still “in a field”.

Does a forest have a border?  Technically yes. So, “I am in the forest”.

So, with borders, use “IN” and you are correct almost all the time.


Long Lines


What does this represent? 

A road, a street, a highway, any type of street (avenue, boulevard, etc), a rail track/railway line, a beach, or the coast.

Use “ON”  and you are right most of the time.   I can also be “on the equator, and on the border (a checkpoint/line separating 2 countries/states etc)

Any exceptions?  Some.  The taxi is travelling “IN” the bus lane.   You can also be in the street, but “ON” does the job for street.  And you can be at the beach.  If you say “I am on the beach” I have an image of you standing on the beach. If you say “I am at the beach”, I think of you as being at a beach town/beach resort.

See how the few exceptions take longer to explain?  For TOEFL, your grammar objective is to be right most of the time.


Co-ordinates – Think GPS A specific point somewhere


 We use “AT”

I am at the bus stop, the bank.

Your address on a street is a specific point.  I live at 66 Lucinda Avenue.

A traffic signal is a specific point:  I stopped at the traffic lights.


Remember:  For TOEFL we need to reduce the number of grammatical errors we make, in order to get a good score from the TOEFL computer program, which more or less counts the number of errors you make before calculating your score from 1 to 5. OK, it does a few other things too, but that's the main part.  For the human rated score – the second one you get, a few preposition errors won’t make it difficult to read, and therefore won’t affect the content score applied by the TOEFL human rater.

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