Nov 30, 2022

Using Prepositions in Research Writing

According to Merriam Webster, a preposition is “a word or group of words that combines with a noun or pronoun to form a phrase that usually acts as an adverb, adjective, or noun”. You have probably heard explanations like this one many times. But you might still be a bit unsure what a preposition is and why you should not ignore these confusing words or mix them up when writing in English. 

Here, we explain once more which functions prepositions have in a sentence and what common mistakes you should avoid to ensure your English writing is correct and clear. We also made a list for you with common expressions that you can choose from or compare your draft to when proofreading the different sections of your research paper. 

What are prepositions anyway?

Preposition words used in between other words and phrases tell you where someone or something is in relation to someone or something else, what someone is doing to something or someone else, or how things or people are connected. Imagine using only nouns and pronouns to make a sentence and leaving all prepositions out just because they are confusing and you don’t want to pick the wrong ones. You might end up telling your friend something like this:

“I put the book the table noon.” 

If your friend were now to look for the book because they need it to get an assignment done, they would have no idea where to find it. Why? Because you did not specify the relationships between the different elements of your sentence. Did you put the book on the table? That is very likely, but you could also have put it under the table, next to the table, behind the table, or inside the table, if it does have a drawer, for example. 

Since you did not specify the relationship of your action (putting the book somewhere) with time (noon) either, your friend might be even more confused. Since the verb form “put” can be in the past tense as well as present tense, there are again a number of possible combinations to choose from: You very likely meant that you already put the book on/in/behind/under/inside the table before or until or by noon, so if it is already 2 pm now and the book is not there, something must have happened and your friend should go and investigate. 

But there is also the possibility that you were sloppy with your tenses and meant you will put the book there around noon. Yes, you should have said “I will” in that case, but since the sentence is already confusing and missing information, your friend has a good reason to question your grammar on top of everything else. If your friend now looks at their watch and sees that it’s just 12:03 pm, they might assume you’ll arrive soon and decide to go and get a coffee in the meantime. 

You might think that this example is a bit exaggerated and that it should be easier for your friend to figure out what is happening because there is context and other things to base assumptions on. But keep in mind that English (unlike many Asian languages for example) is a lower-context language, which means you need to be as precise as possible and try to avoid ambiguity in order to communicate clearly. Instead of seeing prepositions as another confusing grammar point that you could do without, think of them as complex but essential elements of sentences that help you say exactly what you want to say. 

You can find detailed grammar rules and long lists of prepositions and common examples at all the usual sources, and we will not list the same information here. Instead, let’s have a look at the preposition mistakes that are most commonly found in research papers by non-native writers of English, and at how you can check your writing and correct them. The list of correct preposition example expressions below will also help you write correctly and precisely when drafting your thesis or research paper.

Table of Contents:

  1. How to Check Your Use of Prepositions
  2. Typical Preposition Mistakes Found in Research Papers
  3. Correct Expressions to Use in Your Research Paper
  4. Prepositions Q&A

How to Check Your Use of Prepositions

While there are prepositions that are specific for direction, time, space, location, and spatial or more abstract relationships, the correct use of prepositions in English is highly idiomatic and mostly dictated by fixed expressions. The best way to get better at using them correctly, apart from reading and paying attention to recurring expressions, is therefore to always look up a new word or expression in combination with all the prepositions that can be used with it and the respective (potentially very different) meanings. Good sources to look up prepositions and their correct usage are the Merriam Webster online dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English

You can also simply use Google search or Google’s Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequencies of any set of search strings based on a yearly count found in scanned sources. Both search tools show you how often a phrase occurs, and the Ngram Viewer also shows you the relative frequencies of, for example, the same verb in combination with different prepositions. Keep in mind though, that many verbs have different meanings depending on the preposition they are used with, and that a lower frequency for “grateful for” compared to “grateful to” does not mean that one is correct and the other is not, but simply that people write more frequently about being grateful to someone than about being grateful for something

The fact that there are so many prepositions to choose from and that verbs can have very different meanings in combination with different prepositions is the main reason why prepositions are one of the most common sources of mistakes in academic writing. Since there are not many general rules to stick to, let’s look at very common preposition mistakes in research articles and what correct expressions to use instead.

pencil erasing, prepositions for research
Learn how to use prepositions properly and strengthen your research writing.

Typical Preposition Mistakes Found in Research Papers

Time: Since durations, intervals, periods, and timelines are important in many types of research, it is important to use prepositions of time (at, on, in, for, during, since, before, after, between, within…) correctly to avoid ambiguity and confusion.  

NO The samples were incubated during 30 minutes.

YES The samples were incubated for 30 minutes.      

NO The patient had been treated by us since 2 years.

YES The patient had been treated by us for 2 years.  

NO Participants were enrolled between January 2021 to May 2021.

YES Participants were enrolled between January 2021 and May 2021.

YES Participants were enrolled from January 2021 to May 2021.   

Place and direction: Where something happens or where something is placed are also important details of any experiment or study, and using prepositions that specify place and direction (at, on, in, above, behind, below, close to, inside, over…) incorrectly can lead to ambiguity, especially in your method section ‒ make sure you always check carefully if your phrase has the correct meaning.

YES The green arrow was displayed among the red circles.

YES The green arrow was displayed between the red circles. 

YES The green arrow was displayed above the red circles. 

YES The green arrow was displayed across the red circles.       

NO The patient presented to our hospital.

YES The patient presented at our hospital.  

NO One additional variable was entered to the analysis.

YES One additional variable was entered into the analysis.

Comparisons: No experiment or study results can be described without comparing things to each other. Use prepositions such as than, to, as, among, with, and from correctly to avoid confusion in your results section

NO The students’ replies were similar than the office workers’ replies.

NO The students’ replies were similar as the office workers’ replies.

YES The students’ replies were similar to the office workers’ replies.  

NO The design of experiment 2 was the same to the design of experiment 2.

YES The design of experiment 2 was the same as the design of experiment 2.

NO The mode of action of cilostazol is different with that of acetylsalicylic acid.

YES The mode of action of cilostazol is different from that of acetylsalicylic acid.

NO Cardiac blood concentrations were higher as peripheral blood concentrations.

YES Cardiac blood concentrations were higher than peripheral blood concentrations.

Correct Expressions to Use in Your Research Paper

This list is a collection of common expressions often found in research papers that contain easily confusable prepositions. Before you finalize your draft, have a look at these phrases and check whether you need to make some corrections.   

Introduction Section

  • X is the leading cause of Y in most industrialized countries.
  • X is a common disease characterized by
  • X is a widely discussed issue in the field of
  • Recent developments in X have raised questions about
  • In recent years, increasing attention has been drawn to
  • The majority of earlier studies on X have focused on
  • Over the past 20 years, the incidence of Y has steadily increased.
  • In the last 20 years, a number of studies have reported on
  • Since the late 1980s, advancements in the field of Y have led to
  • We tested the effect of antibiotics on bacteria in the treatment of
  • Past research into X has been lacking, due to methodological restrictions.
  • A limited number of experiments have been reported on X so far.
  • Despite its long use in clinical research, method X still has serious limitations.
  • The main purpose of our study was to expand our understanding of

Methods Section

  • The patient presented at our hospital with dizziness.
  • The patient suffered from gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • The patient complained of recurring headaches.
  • Patients underwent surgery on the first day of hospital admission.
  • Patients with no complaints during the past 2 weeks were considered pain-free.
  • Participants who reported not having a smartphone were excluded from the study. 
  • A total of 45 participants who provided consent were included in the analyses.
  • To prevent participants from moving, we placed a cushion under their head.
  • In order to detect motion artefacts, the data were analyzed with Y software.
  • Samples were collected over a period of…
  • Stimuli were presented at intervals of…

Results & Discussion Sections

  • Our comparison of different fish species revealed differences in food preference.
  • The majority of participants responded to all questionnaire items.
  • Group 1 showed a bigger effect than group 2.
  • Nine of the 20 mice died of respiration arrest.
  • Our analyses show that there are problems associated with the use of…
  • We tested the correlation between X and Y and found that…
  • ANOVA was used to assess the effect of X on Y.
  • Figure 3 shows the differences between the treatment and control groups. 
  • We found no significant reduction in X compared to baseline concentrations.
  • Our findings provide crucial insights into
  • Our findings point to an important role of X in
  • The results of the current study are not consistent with earlier findings.
  • Our findings differ from those of earlier studies.
  • Our results are in line with those of earlier studies.
  • The differences between our study and that by Smith et a. can be explained by
  • A possible explanation for the discrepancy in results could be that…
  • The differences could be attributed to
  • Our results show the effectiveness of X as a cure for Y in elderly patients.
  • Our findings highlight the role of X in the treatment of Y.
  • Further studies focusing on X are needed to clarify the role of

See our Academic Cheat Sheet you are looking for a thorough list of research paper terms and phrases.

Common Questions about Preposition Rules

Can a sentence end in a preposition?

Yes, it can. The myth that a preposition cannot end a sentence has been around for a while. But it is not true, and trying too hard not to end sentences in prepositions can actually make your writing sound very unnatural.

Where did he come from?

Because you cannot just say “Where did he come?”, and since “From where did he come?” sounds a bit archaic, ending the sentence with the preposition is better in cases like this. 

Is it ever okay to omit a preposition?

You cannot just leave them out, but you can rephrase your sentence to avoid having to use any prepositions. This can in fact reduce wordiness and improve your writing overall! Have a look at this article for insights on how to eliminate prepositional phrases.

I checked my prepositions, but how can I check my vocabulary as well?

If you are worried that you might be confusing similar words, then have a look at this article. We have more resources for you if you just need more examples of effective phrases and strong verbs for your research writing.

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