Number one for English language teachers

Prepositions relating to movement and position - article

Type: Reference material

An article outlining teaching approaches for prepositions relating to movement.

To/towards

The preposition to indicates movement with the aim of a specific destination, which can be a place or an event, e.g.

I’m travelling to France tomorrow.
I need to go to the Post Office.
Can you tell me the way to the station?
Are you going to the party?
I’ve never been to a football match.
What time did you go to work?

Note that up to is often used to express movement to a person, e.g.

He came up to me and asked me what the time was.

The preposition to is sometimes used to indicate a specific position, especially if a person or object is facing something, e.g.

There’s a door to your left.
He stood with his back to the window.

The preposition towards indicates movement in a particular direction, e.g.

She was carrying a suitcase and walking towards him.
He kicked the ball towards the goal.
Anna pointed towards the window.
Everyone sitting at the table turned towards me.

Note the contrast in the following two examples:

I’m going to Oxford for a meeting.
I think we’re heading towards Oxford now, we must have gone wrong.

In the first example,to introduces a specific destination. In the second example with towards, the direction of movement is a more important part of the meaning than the idea of a particular destination.

Note that occasionally, towards is also used to indicate position, but this is a position in relation to a particular direction from the point of view of the speaker, e.g.

She was sitting towards the back of the room.
Tom stood with his back towards the door.

Through and into

The preposition through refers to movement within a space which can be thought of as three-dimensional, e.g.

They couldn’t get the new sofa through the door.
We drove through some spectacular countryside.
The canal flows through the city centre.
You won’t be able to see it unless you look through the binoculars.

Through usually suggests movement across an entire space, from one side of something to another, e.g.

He cut through the wire.

The preposition into refers to movement from the outside to the inside of a three-dimensional space, e.g.

We got into the back of the car.
She reached into her bag and found the keys.

With certain verbs into can be used to express the idea of movement in the direction of something, often resulting in actually hitting it, as in the second example below, e.g.

He looked straight into her eyes.
She swerved and crashed into the fence.

Across, over and along

The prepositions across and over are used to talk about movement from one side of a place to another. They usually refer to movement in relation to places which can be thought of as two-dimensional, such as surfaces (e.g. a lawn) or lines (e.g. a river), for example:

I’ll jump over the wall and open the gate.

The aircraft flew low over the lake.

How are we going to get across the stream?
It’s the first time I’ve flown across the Atlantic.

Over also functions as a preposition expressing position. It often has a similar meaning to the preposition above, e.g.

There was a mirror above/over the sink.

One of its core uses however is to express position in relation to a two-dimensional surface, e.g.

A white tablecloth was spread over the table.

Or to show when something is positioned on the opposite side of a ‘line’, e.g: road, bridge, etc.

The hotel is over the bridge.

Across is sometimes used to express position in relation to something which stretches from one side of a place to another, e.g.

There was a barrier across the road.

Across, like over, is also used to show when something is positioned on the opposite side of a place in relation to the speaker, e.g.

The bank is across the street.

The preposition along is used to show movement following a line, e.g.

We walked along the river.
I followed Mr Jackson along the corridor.
Well-wishers began placing flowers along the railings.

It is also sometimes used to show a specific position in relation to a line, e.g.

Somewhere along the path there’s a signpost.

Or to show when a group of things are positioned in a line next to something, e.g.

There were plenty of restaurants along the riverfront.

In and on as prepositions of movement

The core function of the preposition in is as an indicator of the position of something in relation to the three-dimensional space that surrounds it, e.g.

They were having a picnic in the park.
I’ve left my bag in the office.
The money is in the top drawer of my desk.

However, in can also be used to express movement towards the inside of a container, place or area:

Can you put the milk in the fridge?
The farmer fired a few shots in the air.

This use is triggered by verbs which express actions rather than states. Compare the following two examples:

I’ll keep in my briefcase.
I’ll put the letter in my briefcase.

In the second example, in is functioning as a preposition of movement, and has the same meaning as the preposition into, as described in through and into.

The core function of the preposition on is as an indicator of position in relation to a two-dimensional surface, e.g.

The letter is on my desk.
There was a beautiful painting on the wall.

However on can also be used to show movement in the direction of a surface, e.g.

We could hear the rain falling on the roof.
I dropped my bags on the floor.

As with the preposition in, this use is triggered by verbs which express actions rather than states. Compare the following two examples:

The vase was lying on the kitchen floor.
The vase fell on the kitchen floor.

In the second example, on is functioning as a preposition of movement, and has the same meaning as the preposition onto, which is usually used to show movement towards a two-dimensional surface, e.g.

Let’s get back onto the path.
She stepped onto the platform.

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