AT, BY or ON? English Prepositions Lesson & Quiz

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

AT BY ON – Do these English prepositions confuse you? Study and practise with me in this English lesson!

This lesson will help you to study and practise English prepositions: AT, BY, & ON.
Sometimes, it can be tough to understand the difference, or when to use AT instead of BY (for example). I’ll help you practise with a quiz and share some useful tips to help you remember how to use them accurately. Go beyond the basics of ‘prepositions of place’ or ‘prepositions of time’ and build your confidence to use English prepositions!


Video Transcript
Section 1
Well hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish and today I am bringing you a very important quiz. I’m going to test you on some of the most common English prepositions.

At, by and on.

These three prepositions can be easily confused and prepositions, in general, are really important for us because they show how elements of a sentence relate to each other so mastering them, feeling confident about them is going to help you to increase your accuracy and ultimately improve your fluency.

And in this lesson, you’ll get to test your knowledge of at, by and on but then I’m going to show you a couple of tricks and some exceptions that will help you to nail these prepositions every time.

Let’s go.

Do you have problems with prepositions? Prepositions 8×8 is a step-by-step course for intermediate to advanced learners to go beyond the basics and to learn eight different ways to use eight prepositions in everyday spoken English.

You’ll learn some advanced word patterns that are gonna take your English skills to the next level. Plus every lesson includes an interactive speaking practice with me using the mmmEnglish imitation technique.

Now, of course, I have a free lesson for you to try so you can see what you think for yourself. Just click the link in the description or follow that one up there and enroll and try it out for yourself.

We’re actually going to work backwards today. We’re going to start this lesson with a quiz and I think you’re actually going to be surprised how many times you can use these prepositions accurately already. Perhaps you’re already making some good choices but there may be a few times when this quiz reveals some opportunities to improve.

Once you identify the gaps in your knowledge, well then you can fill them in, can’t you? And that’s exactly what today’s quiz is all about, identifying the gaps so that we can fill them in.

So I have six questions for you. You’re going to see a sentence up on screen with a blank space just like this one. So your job is to decide whether you need to complete that sentence with at, on or by.

So here it’s at.

  • The train leaves at 10:27.

All right, are you ready to get into it?

Let’s try the first one. Okay take a look. What do you think?

The answer is on.

  • We shop at the market on Saturday.

When on is a preposition of time, we use it with days of the week. We say on Monday, on Wednesday etcetera.

Or we use it with words that include day. Christmas Day. We say on holiday and we even use it when we’re referring to a specific date. We say on the 3rd of March. We’re still referring to a day, right?

So that’s a good clue, a good general clue to remember. We use on with days of the week.

Next one. What do you think?

Again, the answer is on.

  • Why is there water on the floor?

This time on is a preposition of place and we use it to describe a defined area or a surface.

So we say on the balcony. That’s a defined area.

We also say on the table. That’s a defined surface.

Okay here’s the next one. The answer is at.

  • The party starts at 10 am.

10 am? It’s a weird time for a party to start.

What about this one?

Yeah, at, again the answer is still at.

  • I’ll meet you at the tram stop.

So we use at to describe something precise, a precise time like 10 o’clock or midday or at 1:47 or a precise location like we say:

  • Class is at 255 Queen Street.
  • The school is at the corner of Queen Street and Elizabeth Street.
  • I work at the supermarket.

You get the idea, right? It’s precise.

So next we’ve got this one. What do you think?

Well the answer is by.

  • Will the report be finished by Friday?

So when by is a preposition of time it describes the end, the end of time. So we can use it with days, dates and times of the day.

The time to write the report ends on Friday. It’s complete, there’s no more time after that.

So we can say either:

  • The report is due by 12 pm.
  • The report is due by Friday.
  • The report is due by the 2nd of December.

Depending on how specific we want to be.

But did you know that we can replace by in all of these sentences with on or at too? And there are a couple of little things that we need to pay attention to if we do.

Firstly, at can only be used with a time.

  • The report is due at 2 pm.

At tells us that this is a really specific moment, a specific point in time and using by suggests that the report should be finished at any point up until that point in time.

So by and at are similar. At is very specific. By is giving us the endpoint but what about on?

Well firstly, on can only be used with a day or a date.

  • The report is due on Friday.
  • It’s due on the 2nd of December.

Now there’s a tiny little shift that happens here.

As we use on, this sentence becomes more general and more neutral. It’s almost just stating a fact, right? It’s not really creating urgency around when it must be completed. Okay? By using at or by it helps to add a little more urgency. That’s just a slight tiny little difference.

Okay and lucky last. What about this one?

Well the answer here is by. When by is a preposition of place it means next to or near to something. It relates to closeness or to proximity. So if we say:

  • The umbrella is by the door.

It’s near to the door. I live by the beach. It’s near, it’s close.

  • The post office is by the library.

It means it’s next to or near to the library.

Now whether you use at or by here is a little grey. If you were thinking that the door is a precise location, then you could use at to complete this sentence but probably not when we’re talking about objects like an umbrella because at sort of suggests that there’s an expectation to come in. So we use it with people or with animals.

We say there’s someone at the door waiting to come in.

  • Frankie is waiting at the door. 

She’s scratching at the door. She wants to come in.

But if Frankie’s just sitting there outside enjoying the sunshine, we might say:

  • Frankie is by the door.

So when we’re describing the location of a person or of an animal, we can usually use at and by interchangeably with just a very slight change in meaning.

So how did you go? Did you get all six right? Were there a couple that you weren’t sure about? It’s okay. Testing yourself and identifying those gaps in your knowledge is exactly what you need to do to keep improving.

Now you know which prepositions you feel really comfortable with and which ones you might need to practise a little more, maybe give a little more attention to. That is exactly how we make progress together.

But what about when these prepositions don’t really fit into those nice neat categories of time and place?

Well, I want you to keep watching because I’m about to share some tips that will help you to master at, by and on in different situations. I’ve got two very important tips that I want to share with you about learning prepositions.

The first tip is to learn prepositions in word patterns. One of the best ways to make sure that you’re using prepositions accurately is to learn them together with the adjectives or the verbs in word patterns.

So often in English, a specific type of adjective or noun will always be followed by the same one or two prepositions and learning prepositions like this is amazing because you get to learn them in context, in the way that they are actually used in English so it will help you to avoid translating from your native language which is often a trap that my students fall into.

It leads to using the wrong preposition because the way that it’s used in your native language may not directly translate to the way that you learn in English and so by learning these word patterns, you’re able to think about and understand the preposition as it relates to English and not directly translate it from your own native language.

So let’s look at a group of adjectives, adjectives that describe a feeling. Can you think of any?

  • surprised
  • delighted
  • disappointed
  • amazed

I’m sure you can think of many, many more but if I wanted to describe what it was that was making me feel a certain way, angry or upset, then I would use at or by.

  • I was surprised.

By what?

  • I was surprised by the news.
  • I was surprised at the news.

Either is fine.

  • He was amazed by his results.
  • He was amazed at his results.

So the point is that just by learning this simple pattern, feeling and that feeling could be amazed, delighted, furious, surprised you have the feeling with at or by and then the cause or the reason.

Well if you know that pattern, you can be sure that every time you want to talk about these feelings and what’s causing them well you’re going to be using the right preposition.

So my second tip is to look for the exceptions and to learn them. English is full of exceptions, isn’t it? It’s so annoying but it’s true.

We’ve just learnt that there are lots of groups of verbs or groups of adjectives that are always followed by the same preposition.

Well if only it were always that simple. Let’s look at the verb arrive just as an example. You arrive at a place, at describes a really precise location but if you want to talk about how you got there then you would need to use by.

  • She arrived at the cinema.

But how did she get there? Did she drive? Well then she arrived by car or maybe she took the train.

  • She arrived by train.

So at describes the location, by describes the mode of transportation.

Unless of course, she walked, in which case, we would say on foot.

  • She arrived on foot.

So there’s the exception. So this is where paying attention to exceptions can really help.

But now that you know them, you can learn them and you can practise them and the next time you go to use the verb arrive you can be a hundred per cent confident that you’re using the right preposition.

Amazing, huh?

So that is all I have for you today but I really hope this lesson got you thinking about prepositions a little differently and that you feel more confident about using at, on and by now.

Make sure you take what you learned today and you put it into practice, spend a few minutes now just as we finish this lesson writing some sentences and practising some examples.

And of course, if you want to keep practising prepositions with me then go and check out my brand new prepositions course. The link is down in the description, it’s also right here and there is a special discount waiting for all of my mmmEnglish students.

Check it out and I will see you next week with a new lesson. Bye for now!

Links mentioned in the video

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