‘Where do They Sit: on, in or at?’ Use of Prepositions by Nepalese Learners

*Sikha Gurung


The use of prepositionsby English language learners of Nepal is quite interesting. Therefore, this research paper examines the use of prepositions, particularly focusing on the challenges,its causes and the solutions.This study aims to fulfil its purpose of uncovering the issues of English Language Teaching in Nepal.

It is guided by Skinner’s theory of language acquisition, which talks about ‘operant conditioning’ in which children while learning a language goes through trial-and-learn, that is they try and fail to use the correct language unless they become proficient in it. It is qualitative research paper based on the methods like observation, analysis and interpretation of written and verbal communication of the students of English at eighth standard. The study came up with the findings that there are varieties of challenges that the learners face during the process of learning prepositions, there are some causes and solutions too. The implications of this research is relevant for English language classrooms of Nepal. Its findings can add to the existing literature of English language teaching in multilingual context and be applied to the language classrooms of Nepal to understand ELT and make it a better one.

Keywords: English, language, preposition, learners


This academic paper explores the use of English prepositions by the non-native learners of Nepal by examining the written and verbal use of the school level students through observation and interpretation. After finding out how they use the prepositions in their verbal and written discourse, it will explore the challenges the learners face while learning them.Then finally it will dig out the causes and solutions of the challenges that the learners face while learning prepositions.

What is a Preposition?

In English language, prepositions are the words which indicate the location of the nouns or pronouns. They show relationship between entities and the phenomena: they indicate a relationship in space(between one object and another), and/or a relationship in time(between events), in addition to other relationships such as instrument and cause.The classification of the prepositionsare done on the basis ofform, function and meaning. Further, the form is divided assimple (one-word preposition) andcomplex (also called two- word, three-word, or compound prepositions) (Celce-Murcia, & Larsen-Freeman, 1999 as cited in Delija&Koruti, 2013, p.125).Simple prepositions are closed class from which we cannot invent new single word prepositions. However, complex prepositions are open class because new combinations can be invented (Yates, 1991as cited in Delija&Koruti, 2013, p.125). Moreover, in English language, there are approximately seventy simple prepositions. The most frequently used prepositions are: at, by, for, from, in,of, on, to and with (Grubic, 2004, as cited in Delija&Koruti, 2013, p. 125).

Apart from the above theoretical concept of preposition, there seems the necessity of more explanation on its practical use in Nepal. To begin with, in my few years of teaching experience, I have witnessed that preposition is one of the most confusing grammar topics among the learners. Students get confused or do not understand the proper use of preposition. Most of the time, they use them, either on the basis of what they have been taught or  justby doing what they feel is right and reasonable. As far as I have observed, they feel confused among the prepositions like through and across, in and into, out and outside, use of on and many others. In some places, they also tend to include two or more prepositions and sometimes they do not keep any preposition where needed.

Similarly, as a learner of English, I too have experienced the use of preposition to be more challenging than any other topic. Now when I see my learners struggling against it, I realize that maybe we have been teaching them in the way we have learnt from our teachers. We simply memorized the list of prepositions and tried to use them without understanding their use. Thus, less practical and more theoretical teaching-learningmethods probably might be the reasons behind the way we use them. There might be some other loopholes in our teaching methods like teaching them individually rather than teaching in chunks or how they appear in phrases with other parts of speech.

However, in some of the primary levels of our schools in Nepal these days, I have seen that the learners are practically taught prepositions. For instance real objects are used in relation to other objects to show their positions. A teacher might use a ball and a box to show different positions give meaning to the preposition. So, though not necessary to copy the native speakers of English, we can learn them in our own ways, but being careful to make error. Therefore, this paper focuses on the similar matter about the use of preposition by Nepali learners of English to examine the causes of the type of its use and thereby the probable solutions.

Theoretical Framework

This paper is firstly guided by  Skinner’s theory of language acquisition which advocates that children learn by imitation or the reinforcement coming from the environment. It says that thereinforcements during the language learning process shape learner’s grammar into a correct form of a language. Mainly, the Operant Conditioning as claimed by the theory focuses on the trial-and-fail experience of the learner until s/he succeeds in acquiring the language. In other words, the learners try and fail to use correct language until s/he succeeds in learning it.

Next theory which guides this paper is the language transfer theory which claims that the linguistic features of language one is transferred to the language two if there are similarilites. The linguistic features of Nepali language getting transferred to the learners second language acquisition, i.e. English language. As found by Lu (2010), the word transfer was first used by Whitney (1981) to refer to cross-linguistic influences. She had found the evidences that L1 influences at every aspect of L2 learners’ inter-language: discourse, lexicon, semantics, syntax, morphology (including bound morphemes), phonetics, and phonology.

The first theory of Skinner has guided this research paper to explain the situations where the research tries to claim that the learners of English in Nepal struggle: try-fail-try unless they learn it, provided the external forces like the teachers, parents, school management and so on support their learning. The language transfer theory holds its relevance in the research when the research tries to show one of the major causes behind the prepositional errors made by the learners.


The birth of the issue of this research has its roots in my experiences of being a non-native student and teacher of English in Nepal for some years. As a student, I haveexperienced the difficulties in learning prepositions and as a teacher, I have beenwitnessing the problems faced by the learners. Then to satisfy my curiosity, I started exploring related reading materials and also observed closely how my learners use the prepositions. Thus, I have written this paper with the motive of pin pointing the problems, their cause and finding out the solutions for the same.

Prepositional errors are quite common among the learners of English as second language. In Nepal too, due to various reasons, the learners have difficulty in learning the prepositions and hence have the high tendency of making mistakes. Various factors such aslanguage transfer, influence of mother tongue and so onthat are discussed below play important role in the current situation of the learners’ use of prepositions. Therefore, the study of such errors by the research has been done to deal with the issues and eventually come up with its solutions.

Problem Statement

English entered in Nepal since 1850s with the establishment of Durbar High school and continues to spread its influence till date. Next is the fact that English is a global language, lingua franca and an international language (Crystal, 2003), it is spoken by the people worldwide including Nepal. Moreover, globalization of communication tend has led to interest in and demand for English in the global context (Alderson, 2009). Moreover, in Nepal, English has its full-fledged influence as it is one of the major subjects in the academic curriculum as well as the language of media, business, ministry, sports, fashion, film and so on.

However, along with its popularity, the acquisition of English as a foreign language and a medium of instruction in schools of Nepal, it has also got lot of challenges for the Nepalese learners, be it in pronunciation, accent or grammar. Hence, the use of preposition by Nepalese learners particularly, which I have experienced as a learner and a teacher of English language in Nepal, has led to the articulation of the issue of my paper. It exploreshow the English language learners of Nepal use prepositions, identifies the challenges it brings for them, their causes and puts forth the possible solutions.

Purpose of the Research

The purposes of this academic research paper are: To explore the use of preposition by the Nepali learners of English and also toexaminethe problems, their causes and the solutions.


Firstly, to find the answers of ‘what’ and ‘how’, I selected the research site asKavre’s school for this location wasconvenient to me, it is the same school where I have been working for about five years.The research participantswere five English students of eighth grade from the school.For data collection, the student participants’ write ups collected in the classroom during English class have been observed to study their use of prepositions. Further, as a part of ethical consideration the participants are given the pseudonyms. During data analysis, I coded the data, generated and interpreted the themes as suggested by (Creswell, 2009).

Research Questions

The research questions which were aimed to be answered in the course of the study were: How do the learners of English in Nepal use prepositions? What are the challenges that they encounter? What are their causes and how can they be addressed?

Research Participants

Name Grade School location Sex Age
Sanju 8 Kavre F  13
Rohan 8 Kavre M 12
Samanta 8 Kavre M 13
Sweta 8 Kavre F 12
Pratyusha 3 Kavre F 14



The findings suggest that there are that there are different types of errors, namely substitution, omission and addition of prepositions in the verbal and written discourse of the learners. The frequent error done was substitution that is, the use of one preposition for the other. Moreover, the students’ confusion mostly was regarding the use of the preposition ‘on’.

It was found that the errors made in the use of prepositionsare due to various reasons: polysemy nature of prepositions, sheer number of preposition, interference of native language and method of instruction. These kinds of problems can be addressed through the use of collocations and prototype, practical method of teaching, explanatory method which will be discussed in detail in the discussion section. Nevertheless, the study of various literature written such as Delija&Koruti, 2013, Gordon &Lorincz, 2012 and so on as mentioned also suggest thatthat the prepositional errors are not only the problems of Nepali learners but common in learners of other languages who acquire English as a second language.


Particularly, this study has focused on the two types of the learners’ usage of English: the verbal and the written. The examination led to the findings of the two types of errors made by them:

Written Errors

When the write ups of the students were examined, the common errors found were: substitution in which one item is replaced by the other; omission in which one item is omitted or taken out; and addition in which one extra item is included with the other (Gordon &Lorincz, 2012).

Written sentences Types of errors
Yes I agreethe statement ‘we are happier than our forefathers… Omission of ‘with’
I think the swallow was kind enough to help the Happy Prince, though he hesitated at the beginning Substitution of ‘in’ by ‘at’
Being happiness at the cost to ourselves…. Substitution of ‘of’ by ‘to’
No, it wasn’t right of the people to offer money to Charlie in exchange for the golden ticket Substitution of ‘of’ by ‘for’
He went in a chocolate shop and … Substitution of ‘into’ by ‘in’
Thank you for cooperate me. Omission of ‘with’

Verbal Errors

The verbal communication was observed for about a month which were analyzed

and interpreted to find out the commons errors made by the learners.:

Verbal Communication Types of Errors
I came to school in Tuesday. substitution of ‘on’ by ‘in
He kept my ball inhis bag. substitution of ‘inside’ by in
Ma’am is calling you inhere.                                addition of ‘in’
I was born onKathmandu                             substitution of ‘in’ by ‘on’
Return her pen inMonday, okay.                             substitution of ‘on’ by ‘in’
I listened (to omitted) music. omission of ‘to’


According to Blom, (2006) the way they are taught preposition and their mother tongue interference are the basic causes behind such errors. Prepositions are usually taught individually, not in clusters like. ‘agree with’, ‘came up’ and so onwhich cause the error.

In this regard, Pingali (2009) has also found out that language transfer, that is the literal translation of the corresponding structures from Language one (L1) to Language two (L2) lead to such errors. For examples: ‘What did you do to us?’, ‘I got angry on him’, ‘You are entitled for free tickets’.

Similarly, as regards the causes behind the errors made in preposition, Delija and Koruti, (2013) has found various reasons such as due to teaching only what is there in the textbooks and no explanation; polysemy (multiple meanings) of preposition, For example, on;lack of spoken or written guide on how to use preposition, native language interference; teachers’difficulty to teach prepositions as they also do not have the better way of teaching it and alsothey teach the way they had been taught by their teachers.Then another reason is the sheer number of prepositions in English language which is about 70 (Gordon &Lorencz, 2013). Hence a number of causes are responsible for the effect for the errors while using prepositions by thelearners’of English as a second or foreign language.

Possible Steps

Some of the effective measures can be taken to facilitate the smooth learning of prepositions. Firstly, rather than just listing out the number of prepositions, the learners can be taught using visual images or real objects available nearby or even in the classroom to relate them to real life situations. For example keeping a book on the table, showing the copies inside their bags, sending someone outside the classroom and so on, the concept of prepositions can be taught to the learners.

Second, can be the use of collocations while teaching,that is, providing learners the language input as chunks or group of words rather than individual words which can help them understand the occurrence of the prepositions with other words. For example, to teach ‘On’ we can give them its collocations such as: rely on, to walk on, to work on, on time, on screen. This will help the students internalize the relation of the prepositions with other words.

Third measure can be through the prototype approach. It means, out of many meanings of a certain prepositions, we can make the learners understand one of its dominant or recurring usage. This is the spatial or the physical meaning or the prototype. For example, the preposition on has multiple meanings, but the prototypical definition is “contact of an object with a line of surface” (Lindstromberg, 1996, p. 229). However, while explaining the prototypical meaning of any preposition, they should also be made aware of its other uses to avoid confusion.


The common challenges in relation to the use of prepositions that the learners encounter in their verbal and written communication are substitution, omission and addition of the prepositions. The causes can be numerous such as the way the concept of preposition is, the interference of mother tongue, polysemic nature of prepositions, large number of prepositions in English language and so on. The solutions to address the challenge that the learners face while using prepositions can be the use of effective teaching methods, the use of collocations and the use of prototype.


Anderson, C. (2009). The politics of language education. Great Britain: Short Run Press Ltd.

Blom, L. (2006). Swedish problems with English prepositions. pp (23)Retrieved from


Delija, S &Koruti, O. (2013). Challenges in teaching prepositions in a language classroom. Journal of Education and Practice. Vol 4(13). Retrieved from: http://www.iiste.or/Journals/index.php/JEP/article/viewfile/6783/6896

Gordon, R &Lorincz, K.(2012). Difficulties in learning prepositionsand possible solutions. Linguistic Portfolios 1(14). Retrieved from repository.stcloudstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=stcloud

Lu, L (2010). Language Transfer: From Topic Prominence to Subject Prominence. A Published Dissertation: University of Leeds. Retrieved from: https://www.linguistics-journal.com/wp-content/…/TLJ_MA-thesis_Lanfeng-Lu.pdf

Pingali, S. (2009). Dialects of English: Indian English. Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press Ltd

(*Sikha Gurung is an MPhil scholar at Kathmandu University School of Education in ELE. Professionally, she is an English teacher at Kathmandu University High School, Chaukot, Kavre and an English lecturer at K and K International College, New Baneshwor, Kathmandu. She likes to explore the various issues of English language teaching to upgrade herself academically as well as professionally.)


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