Prepositions Running head: prepositions

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Running head: prepositions

English and Vietnamese Prepositions: A Contrastive Analysis

Nguyen Thi Yen Nhung

University of Pedagogy

Contrastive analysis

Lecturer: Mr Nguyen Ngoc Vu

HCM December 26th 2010


Prepositions are words used to connect nouns or noun structures to other structures in a sentence. They exist in both English and Vietnamese language systems. However, prepositions have different characteristics and usage in each language. The use of prepositions may cause lots of trouble for Vietnamese people when learning English and vice versa. Therefore, this paper aims at analyzing English and Vietnamese prepositions in a contrastive view, especially in showing direction and location so that leaners can find it easier to learn them. This paper also supplies some implications for teaching prepositions which can be useful for those who teaching English or Vietnamese. Through these implications, I hope that they can help teachers know how to help students use prepositions correctly and appropriately.

Literature Review

Prepositions in English


According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary, a preposition “is a word or group of words used before a noun or pronoun to show place, position, time or method”. Another definition is that a preposition “may be defined as connecting word showing the relation of a noun or a noun substitute to some other words in the sentence (the squirrel in the tree; the preposition in shows the relationship between the squirrel and the tree.)” (“Prepositions: definition and usage”, n.d). From these definitions, we can come to a conclusion about the function of a preposition which is it is used to connect nouns and noun structures with other structures in a sentence. Prepositions that we often use in everyday life are: with, at, by, to, in, for, from, of, on. It is estimated that these prepositions make up for ninety percent of preposition usage.

The part following a preposition is called its object. The object of a preposition can be a noun, a pronoun, a gerund or a noun clause. For example, we have:

a noun: We gave a present to our secretaries.

pronoun: We gave a present to them.

a gerund: We thought about giving a present to them.

a noun clause: We thought about giving a present to whoever worked for us.

(Lougheed, n.d)


Prepositions are often in one-word form; however, there are also other prepositions with more than one word. They are made up with two or three words. For example, we have on behalf of, in front of, in accordance with, in line with, in relation to and so on. Another form is called prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases are groups of words that begin with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun. Some phrases are used commonly and in a number of situations such as “acting as an adjective or an adverb, locating something in time and space, modifying a noun, or telling when or where or under what conditions something happened.” (“Prepositions: Locator in time and place”, n.d). Examples of these prepositional phrases are out of work, at any rate, by means of, in person, under orders, from now on and so forth. Besides, there are some called marginal prepositions which are verbal in forms, such as concerning, considering, including, pending and more.


Prepositions are used with a lot of functions including time, location, manner, means, quantity, purpose, and state or condition. Regarding to prepositions of time, there are some prepositions like at, on, in, from, since, for, during, to, till/until, after, afterwards, by.before and so forth. For example, we have: at six o’clock, on Monday or in the evening. Another usage of prepositions is to show location. Some belong to this category are in,at,on,next to,beside, behind,in front of,opposite,near,on top of,under,above and so on. For example, Jone lives at 55 Boretz Road in Durham, She lives in Durham or Mary is sitting next to me. Prepositions of movement include: from,to,at,into,out of,towards,on,onto,across,through,around,along,up. For instance, he ran out of the room or Mary run towards the walls. Other usages are listed below.

Means or agent:

by: He was hit by a ball.

from: His success results from careful planning .

in: He takes pleasure in it.

on: They live on bread and water.

with: He chased the mongoose with a stick.


by: By doing it yourself

in: He left in confusion.

like: He looks like a hero.

on: I swear it on my word of honor.

with: He ate it with a fork.

State or condition:

at: My friend is at work.

by: They are by themselves

in: He is in a state of confusion

on: He is on duty (scheduled to work).

for: I mistook you for someone else.

as: I see her as a good person

. Quantity or mesure:

for: We drove for twenty miles.

by: We bought them by the kilo


for: He bought it for an emergency.

She went to the city for sightseeing.

He loved her for her thoughtfulness.

(“Prepositions: definition and usage”, n.d)

Vietnamese Prepositions


Like English, Vietnamese also has a category of word which is similar to prepositions. We may call this category Vietnamese equivalent of English preposition. To make it simple, some people prefer to use the name preposition. Nevertheless, the notion preposition in Vietnamese is a quite complicated issue because some linguists have claimed that prepositions do not exist in Vietnamese. Yet, according to Tuc (2003), “although the distinction between prepositions and serial verbs in Vietnamese is not always clear-cut, Vietnamese prepositions do exist” (p.69). In his book, he also gave many examples to prove his opinion. Moreover, nowadays, in many books of teaching Vietnamese for foreigners, the name preposition is often used. Therefore, to be convenient, the name Vietnamese preposition is used for equivalent of English preposition in Vietnamese in this paper.

Types of prepositions in Vietnamese

According to Tran (2007) there are two main types of preposition in Vietnamese: prepositions of time and location. In addition, there are some other prepositions called miscellaneous ones. Prepositions of time are vào (in, on, at), trong or suốt (during), trước (before), sau (after), kể từ khi (since) and cho tới khi (until). In terms of prepositions of location, there are trên (on, above, over), trong (in, inside), chung quanh (around), bên phải (on the right of), cạnh (next to) and so on. Finally, miscellaneous prepositions conclude cho (for), với (with), về (about), nhờ (thanks to), bởi (by) and so forth.

Here are some examples about how these prepositions are used in sentences. Their usage in Vietnamese is similar to in English.


Tôi thường dậy vào sáu giờ sáng (I usually get up at six am)

Trong bữa tiệc cô ấy không nói gì cả. (She said nothing during the party)


Bạn tôi sống ở Sài Gòn (My friend lives in Saigon)

Viện bảo tàng nằm bên phải tiệm sách cũ (The museum is located on the right of the used bookstore)


Lại đây ngồi với tôi! (Come and sit with me)

Nhớ mua hoa cho tôi nhé. (Remember to buy flowers for me, OK?)

Đối với tôi, chuyện đó không quan trọng (That issue doesn’t matter to me)

(Tran, 2007)

Contrast between English and Vietnamese prepositions

The notion preposition is quite an interesting issue. There may be so many things to say if we compare prepositions in English with those in Vietnamese in a large scale. Nonetheless, within this paper, I only make a contrast between English and Vietnamese prepositions in two aspects: prepositions of movement with directional verbs and locative prepositions because they often cause problems for Vietnamese people when learning English and vice versa.

Prepositions of movement with directional verbs

The first difference between English and Vietnamese prepositions is related to directional verbs. In English, directional verbs like come, go and arrive cannot take direct objects. This means they must have a preposition (or a prepositional phrase), bare particle or deictic verbial (“bare noun phrase adverb”). Since prepositions are being discussed in this paper, the examples with bare particle and deictic verbial are not mentioned. Here are the examples of directional verbs with prepositions

Sally has gone to New York.

Catrin will come to Sheffield next month.

They arrived at the airport.

(“Vietnamese online grammar”,n.d)

In Vietnamese, by contrast, there is no need to use prepositions with these directional verbs because these verbs can take direct objects by themselves. We have these examples:

Tuần trước cô đi Luân Đôn (Last week she went to London)

Bao giờ cô ấy định sang Việt Nam? (When does she intend to come to Vietnam?)

Máy.bay xuống phi-trừơng Liên-khang. (The plane landed at Lien khang airport)

(“Vietnamese online grammar”,n.d)

Actually, in Vietnamese, there is no preposition which is similar to preposition “to” in English. The verb đến (reach, arrive at) is used instead as the following examples:

Tôi không có thời giờ đi (đến) bưu điện

I don’t have time to go to the post-office

Locative prepositions

In English, space prepositions state the location of an object without paying attention to the position of the speakers. For example, English people often say: “the plane is “in” the sky, the child is playing “in” the kitchen, cars run “in” the street”. (McCarty, Pérez, Torres-Guzman, To, & Watahomigie, 2004, p. 150). On the contrary, in Vietnamese, people tend to consider the position of the speakers. They say: máy bay ở trên trời (the plane is above him or her), đứa trẻ đang chơi trong nhà bếp (the child is inside the kitchen), những chiếc xe hơi chạy ngoài đường (cars are outside). Therefore, preposition in can be translated three ways into Vietnamese with three different meanings: trên, trong, ngoài.

In addition, Tran (2010) mentioned several differences between English and Vietnamese prepositions in terms of semantics and pragmatics. First, when describing the higher position, they take the contact meaning between trajector (đối tượng định vị) and landmark (đối tượng qui chiếu) into consideration.For example, they distinguish the meaning of on, above and over. Meanwhile, Vietnamese people almost do not pay attention to this aspect. They just use the only word trên. Second, when talking about the relation between above (trên) and under (dưới), English people are always aware of whether or not trajector (đối tượng định vị) is in the vertical reference (vùng quy chiếu thẳng đứng) of the landmark’s (đối tượng qui chiếu) area. That is the reason why they have these words: above / over / on and under / below / beneath. In contrast, Vietnamese people only devide the space into two part “above/under” (trên/dưới).To indicate the middle position, English has in the middle of / between (for 2 objects) and among (for 3 objects and more) while Vietnamese use the word giữa for all these cases. Examples of this kind are summarized in the table below.


English prepositions

Vietnamese prepositions


in, inside



out, outside, out of



on, upon,above,on top of, over,atop



under, underneath, beneath, below



before,in front of, ahead of, preceding



behind, following, at the back of (br), in the back of (ame)



by, near, next to, close to, beside, alongside, to the right/left

bên, cạnh, sát, gần, kề, bên phải, bên trái


within, among, between, in the middle of, in the midst of


(Tran, 2010)

Implications for teaching

After having contrasted English and Vietnamese prepositions in two aspects as above, I would like to mention the implications for teaching English at high school in our country.

Since learners tend to translate everything into their mother tongue, teachers should be very careful when teaching English, especially prepositions. They need to realize that there is no exact one-to-one translation from English to Vietnamese and vice versa. Referring to the discussion “prepositions with directional verbs”, we know that when translating a sentence from English to Vietnamese or Vietnamese to English, sometimes we may add or omit the prepositions. For instance, we may not use preposition “to” with directional verbs in Vietnamese. Moreover, as discussed in the section Locative prepositions above, we can realize that a Vietnamese preposition may have several prepositions which are equivalent to them in English. Therefore, teachers should ask learners to take notice of this issue and know when to use the most appropriate preposition. In sum, to make sure the exact preposition is used, learners should observe how a preposition is used in a certain context. They should not translate directly using prepositions in their language since prepositions can be used differently in different language.

Moreover, the difference between Vietnamese and English prepositions is mainly due to semantics and the notion of reference (quan niệm quy chiếu), so it is vital that teachers have enough knowledge of these fields to explain to students completely. Culture difference and the habit of using prepositions in each language are also the things that teachers should bear in mind. If teachers are very careful about these things, students may reduce making mistakes when using prepositions.


In conclusion, preposition is an interesting category in linguistics. There are so many things to discuss about preposition. However, sometimes learners may feel confused about how to use prepositions correctly, especially when Vietnamese prepositions have something different from English prepositions. That is the reason why learners often make mistakes when dealing with prepositions. A contrastive analysis in this area is necessary and important because it shows difference between English and Vietnamese prepositions in relation to direction and location. Directional and locative prepositions are the ones that often causes trouble to students more than other types. After having contrasted them, we can see that English prepositions are more complex than those in Vietnamese. Moreover, the research also suggest some implications for teaching prepositions in Vietnamese high school, so I hope that this research paper will be a piece of useful referent material for those who are interested in teaching a language aspect, particularly preposition.

Reference List

Ashby, M., McIntosh, C., Turnbull, J., Wehmeire, S. (Eds). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.7th Edition. The UK: Oxford University Press

Lougheed, Lin. (n.d). The great preposition mystery. Retrieved Dec.20, 2010 from

McCarty, T.L., Pérez, B., Torres-Guzman, M.E, To, T.D. & Watahomigie, L.J., (Eds.) (2004). Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy. 2nd Ed. (p.150). Britain: Routledge.

Prepositions: Definition and Usage. Hunter College Reading/Writing Center. March 01 1999. Retrieved Dec.29, 2010 from

Prepositions: Locator in time and place. (n.d).Retrieved Dec.20, 2010 from

Tran, M.T., Tran, T.C. (2007). Chào bạn!: an introduction to Vietnamese. The U.S.A: University Press of America.

Tran, Q.H. (2010). Major differences in the use of English and Vietnamese locative prepositions describing spacial relations. Retrieved Dec.27, 2010 from

Tuc, Ho-Dac (2003), Vietnamese-English Bilingualism Patterns of Code-Switching. (p.69). London & New York: Routledge

Vietnamese online grammar. (n.d). Retrieved Dec. 23, 2010 from

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