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Russian mistakes in English: prepositions

Most Russian students tend to worry more about their tenses than their use of prepositions in English.

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However, mistakes with prepositions are likely to cause no less confusion than the misuse of tenses because it is precisely these small words that connect elements within a sentence and tell use “who is doing what to whom”. In Russian, the role of prepositions is partly played by the language’s 6 cases, but as English lacks a complex case system, prepositions have increased importance.

ENGLISH PREPOSITIONS VS. RUSSIAN CASES

If we try removing the appropriate case endings from a Russian sentence, it sounds strange (1), but if we use the wrong case endings, it becomes harder to understand (2). The correct sentence is shown in (3).

(1) «Они работали часы над новая проект, и отправили доклад руководители.»
(2) «Они работали часов над новому проекту, и отправили докладом руководителями.»
(3) «Они работали часами над новым проектом, и отправили доклад руководителям.»

This is the same in English when it comes to prepositions. In sentence (1) they have been removed and in (2) incorrect prepositions have been added. The correct sentence is shown in (3).

(1) “She read the text English, crossed it a red pen and cried hours.”
(2) “She read the text on English, crossed it through by a red pen and cried with hours.”
(3) “She read the text in English, crossed it out with a red pen and cried for hours.”

In the examples above, you can see the important role played by case endings in Russian and prepositions in English. It is worth making the effort to get them right in both languages if you want to be properly understood.

TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS

When trying to understand how prepositions are used, it is important to distinguish between two worlds – the tangible, physical world we can see and touch, and the abstract world of concepts and ideas.

PHYSICAL WORLD

English and Russian tend to agree most of the time when it comes to the concrete or physical world, but there are also some noticeable divergences in the perception of certain objects.

For example, in English the words “tree” and “picture” take the preposition “in”. However, in Russian “дерево” and “картина” take the surface preposition “на”. Compare the following:

“The bird is ON the tree” (Russian mistake)
“The bird is IN the tree” (Correct usage)

“There are flowers ON the picture” (Russian mistake)
“There are flowers IN the picture” (Correct usage)

When we say “on/на” we are referring to a surface relationship and when we use “in/в” we mean inside a 3D object. Judging from the above examples, we might argue that our two languages perceive trees and pictures differently – English as 3D objects with an “inside”, Russian as surfaces. Interestingly, if we changed the word “tree” to “branch” in our example, we would see agreement between English and Russian usage of the surface prepositions “on/на”. If you would like to test this, ask some Russian friends to draw a tree – you can expect to see branches in their pictures. Native English speakers are more likely to draw a “cloud with a stick” picture but with no branches (unless you specify that it should be a tree in autumn/winter!).

When considering the “picture” example, you might argue that English can also use “on”, e.g. “The fly is on the picture” (surface). In Russian, you cannot say “в” (in) about a picture and therefore to distinguish between a painted fly and a live one, you would have to add clarification, e.g. “Муха сидит на картине” (Lit. The fly is sitting on the picture).

Russians also have a tendency to use “on” with words like “concert”. The correct preposition to use here is “at”, e.g. “I can’t speak now! I’m AT a concert and the music’s really loud!” English speakers learning Russian would similarly be prone to making mistakes like: “Это я В фотографии” or “Пошли В концерт!” because we use “in” with these nouns. English also uses “in” about sun and rain, e.g. “Singing in the rain” and “Lazing in the sun”. Russian uses “под” in these contexts so Russian speakers often make the mistake of saying “under the sun/rain”.

Remember that where we see differences in our use of preposition in English and Russian, we can expect mistakes unless the speaker has specifically learnt the correct usage.

Another interesting mistake is with “in/to”. Russian uses the preposition “в” to describe place (where?) and direction (where to?), whereas English uses “in” for the former and “to” for the latter. This may seem like an elementary mistake but it is an easy one to make. Here’s an example:

“I went IN England last summer.” (Russian mistake)
“I went TO England last summer.” (Correct usage)

If you examine a list of physical world nouns in English, it is often possible to see how they form logical categories in terms of the prepositions they take. The following categories may be of use:

Technology = on               (computer, TV, DVD, hard drive, CD, screen, radio, etc.)
Big transport = on             (bus, plane, ship, ferry, etc.)
Surface = on                       (bicycle, wall, floor, roof, table, face, shelf, etc.)
Inside a 3D object = in     (drawer, tree, book, newspaper, hat, pocket, box, fog)
Buildings/places = at/in   (office, stadium, shop, supermarket, station, park)

English also has some interesting nouns that can change state or be perceived in different ways – both as surfaces and 3D objects. For example, you may be IN your bed but your cat may be ON your bed. You are under the covers (inside) and the cat is on top of the covers (surface). The same is true of water, which can take many different prepositions depending on the context: swim in the water, float on the water, sit by the water, etc. Certain nouns in Russian can also take multiple prepositions, e.g. language – на русском языке vs. в русском языке. This leads to Russian mistakes like: “I read the text ON English.” (in). Using “on” here would mean that the text was “about” the English language but could have been written in Russian, Chinese, etc.!

ABSTRACT WORLD

In addition to the physical world around us that we can see and touch, we have another abstract world of concepts and ideas. Prepositions used with more abstract notions often lack the logic associated with the use of prepositions in the physical world and this leads to more mistakes. Where English and Russian use the same preposition in a given construction, we would not expect errors to occur, e.g. rely on – рассчитывать на. However, where the languages differ, mistakes are more common. Compare the following:

  Russian Mistake
depend onзависеть отdepend from
refuse __отказаться отrefuse from
prepare forготовиться кprepare to*
tired ofустал отtired from**
graduate fromзакончить __graduate __ university
divide intoразделить наdivide on
wait forждать (+ acc)wait __ someone
listen toслушать (+ acc)listen __ music
explain toобъяснять (+ dat)explain __ someone

* You can say “prepare to do something” but not “prepare to an exam”
** You can say “he was tired from the journey” but not “I am tired from you”

If we are able to understand where our languages differ, we can focus on these points of divergence and learn the correct forms through repetition and practice. Relying on your native language instinct when speaking English will lead to mistakes similar to those listed above. This is an entirely logical process of transfer from your mother tongue. Remember that mistakes are not bad in themselves as long as we learn from them and improve.

PREPOSITIONS IN PHRASAL VERBS

Phrasal verbs can pose problems for those learning English due to their number and complexity of usage. Phrasal verbs consist of a usual verb and one or more particles (prepositions). These particles play a similar role to inflections added to the beginning of verbs in Russian, e.g. смотреть (look, watch) vs. просматривать (look through) vs. осматривать (look round). Many verbs of motion in both languages follow this same pattern – выйти (go out), перейти (go across), обойти (go around), etc.

Russians often confuse verbs of this type with their root verbs, e.g. pick vs. pick up, grow vs. grow up, etc. Compare the following:

“I am going to the forest to pick up mushrooms.” (Correct: pick)
“My father likes to grow up vegetables on his allotment.” (Correct: grow)

Remember that children grow up but vegetables grow and you pick up some milk on your way home but pick berries in the woods. Learn phrasal verbs in context to avoid confusion.

For more on the topic of Russian mistakes see:
Russian mistakes in English: singular vs. plural
Russian mistakes in English: gender

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