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Prepositions, the great struggle for students of English everywhere! Although there exist some rules related to the use of prepositions, they must be learned, for the most part, by practice and trial and error. One useful way to learn them is by separating them into basic general categories, which is what we will be doing in this blog post. We will consider prepositions as they relate to time.

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Let’s start with something easy. To say what time it is, we use the verb ‘to be.’ It is three o’clock right now, etc. To say what time something will happen (or happened in the past), we use the preposition ‘at’. The film starts at ten o’clock, so we need to hurry up and eat fast! I got to work at half past eight this morning.
Now let’s look at the preposition ‘in.’ If we say that we will do something ‘in five minutes’ or ‘in two weeks’ etc., it means that the action will happen at that point in the future. If it’s January and I tell you that your package will arrive in one month, that means it will arrive in February. Furthermore, we should note the expression ‘in time.’ We use this phrase to communicate that something happens before it’s too late. If I say I was late to the concert but in time to hear my favorite song, that means I arrived before the band played my favorite song.
A slightly different phrase is ‘on time.’ This phrase simply means that something occurs at the correct, arranged time. If I tell you to be at my house at seven o’clock and you arrive at that time, then congratulations: you are on time! What a nice, punctual friend you are! We also use ‘on’ for days of the week (My birthday is on a Monday this year, The exam in on Friday, etc.), as opposed to ‘in,’ which we use for months (My birthday is in July).
Another very convenient time-related preposition to know is ’by.’ When we use ‘by’ in reference to time, it means ‘some time before’ or ‘no later than.’ We all know the classic scenario: you are a teenager, you want to go out with your friends, and you have to ask your parents for permission. They say, “Ok, but you have to be home by ten o’clock.” This sentence means that you need to return to your house at some time before ten o’clock, but not later than ten.
Notice that after ‘by,’ we can only say a specific moment (time/day/month). By ten o’clock, by Friday, by next week, etc. However, we may need to explain a different type of moment, one that doesn’t correspond to an exact time on the clock. Consider the following example: “I’m going to the supermarket now. You need to finish cleaning the dishes by the time I get home.” It is clear that the person speaking does not know exactly when they will get home. Therefore, they cannot say a specific time. In cases like this, we use the phrase ‘by the time.’ We can follow this phrase with a subject and verb (“by the time I get home”).
That’s enough to get us started! To practice what you’ve learned, try the exercise.

A. Edstrom

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