English as a Second Language/Prepositions


QUESTION: Dear Shannon,

Please study these and give me your guidlines:

(1) "Donít forget to keep in touch with your old friends; you will have lots to tell them (about?)." Should I say "tell them about"?

(2)"He fell down a hole." Isn't is better to say "He fell down in a hole" or "He fell in a hole" removing "down"?

(3) "Pieces of ice will break off the icebergs if the sea continues to become warmer." Is "break off from" better or wrong?

(4) "We work long hours." Should I say "work for"? Or the sentence is correct this way?

(5) "Oil-well firefighter Ė My job is very dangerous; I put out fires that happen at oil wells. I work on about 80 wells in a year." I think the preposition after "happen" is wrong; it should be "in". Also, after "80 wells" it should be "in" because "work on" has meanings: to try to produce or repair something or to improve or achieve something.

(6) "Alaska is a dangerous place to live, as you can be killed by bears or get lost in the mountains." Why the preposition "in" is not used after "live"?

Thanks & best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

ANSWER: 1. It's optional.

2. We like to use "down" to emphasize the depth (a very large hole that a person could disappear into!)

3. "Break off of" is an option, but not necessarily better.

4. No, it is correct the way it is.  We don't say "We work for long hours."  We could say: "I work for Mr. Smith.  I work 9 to 5."

5. Here, "at" is used because it is talking about the general location of the fire instead of being specific about the precise object that catches fire. It could be, for example that more than just the oil well is on fire AT the location of the wells.  I don't think "work on" affects the choice of "in" here.  It is simply a replacement for "during."

6. You could use "in" if you wish.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: 1. Why the preposition "about" is optional? I used to put it.
2. Is "He fell in a hole" correct and imply the same meaning?
3. I used "break off from" and you say "break off of". Is the first one incorrect?
4. So, "long for long hours" is incorrect?
5. I did not understand how "work on" is a replacement of "during".
6. Why the preposition "in" is optional? I used to put it.

ANSWER: 1. Because in this case, you have "lots" to tell them (rearranged the sentence reads: "I have to tell them lots [substitute "something" here for "lots" and you see it works fine]) and so you don't necessarily need an "about" as the word "tell" doesn't always require a preposition.

2. Actually, I misread that.  "He fell down a hole" would have been acceptable.  "He fell down in a hole" isn't used.

3. from/of are both ok

4. "work for long hours" is incorrect

5. My mistake; I was looking at another example of yours.  You said "work on" has meanings: to try to produce or repair something.  And that is how it is being used in this context, rather than talking about location.  Sure, it doesn't work precisely, but there's no better way to describe going to a site and removing the emergency (fire).  If we say "work in" then we have to assume the man is going to dive into the actual hole, possibly hundreds of feet underground, that is burning.

6. The same reason we can say, "This restaurant is a great place to eat."  It simply makes sense grammatically as it is written.  The "in" only adds emphasis.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Is "He fell in a hole" correct and imply the same meaning as "He fell down a hole"?

Yes, I would say they are the same.  If there is a difference, it is the implied depth of the hole.  "He fell in a hole" doesn't tell us about the depth -- maybe he fell into it, but it was only to his knees.  "He fell down a hole" usually implies the hole was so deep, his entire body disappeared.

English as a Second Language

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Shannon Cole


I can answer questions related to learning the English and Spanish language.


I have taught ESL and Spanish since 1998 at the university and middle school levels. I am a native of the U.S., and have taught in both the U.S. and Mexico.

I am owner and operator of www.coleinstitute.com, an online language school.

Georgia TESOL in Action (1999)

B.A. in Spanish; M.Ed. in Language Education

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I have clients worldwide, some who want their documents proofread, and others who take lessons with me through the Internet. Some work at high-profile companies and government organizations. Besides the U.S. and Mexico, my recent students come from South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Italy, Paraguay, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

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