a diary open to a specific dateA, an, the, in, on, and at are some of the words in English that seem pretty simple and straightforward at first glance, so why is it then that they can literally drive students of English crazy? Teachers will often hear beginner students ask if the teacher can give them a list of rules when to use the articles a/an and the or the prepositions in, on and at. Even the most zealous students gasp in disbelief when they hear that this “list” is actually a twenty-page handout providing a range of examples grouped according to various criteria. The next question is, of course, whether they will ever be able to learn to use these words. So let’s get this straight – it’s not impossible to learn to use these words, but it won’t happen overnight. It takes practice and focus. The idea that other speakers don’t even hear the difference between a or the, between in and on doesn’t really hold water. Let’s see a few examples:

If you were talking to a colleague and said I saw a film yesterday, he or she would expect you to say something about the film or they would ask questions about it.
If, on the other hand, you said I saw the film yesterday, your colleague might think that you confused him or her with some other person that you talked to about a film.

If you’ve arranged with your business partner that you would book a hotel for him or her and you’ve decided together what hotel to book, by saying I’ve booked the hotel for you, you’re letting your business partner know that he or she is going to stay at the hotel that you agreed upon earlier.
If you said I’ve booked a hotel, your business partner would most probably think that you booked another hotel that he or she doesn’t know and would expect you to provide the name of the hotel and explain why you haven’t booked the hotel that you agreed upon.

Let’s imagine you’re arranging a meeting with a client, and you text the client See you on January, your client would think you have sent the text as incomplete by mistake and would expect you to complete the text by providing the date, for example See you on January 14.
It is because on is used with dates, whereas in is used with months, for example See you in January.

Hopefully, these examples have managed to illustrate how important these small words are in English. Below is some advice on how to learn them:

– When you read in English or listen to native speakers of English, focus on the small words, look at how they’re used in a phrase, underline such phrases, copy them into your notebook and memorize the whole phrases.

– Don’t translate phrases containing these small words into Croatian because Croatian doesn’t use articles, and prepositions are used differently in the two languages. For example, both I ordered the book and I ordered a book can be translated as Naručio sam knjigu. In some situations we might be more specific and say Naručio sam onu knjigu and Naručio sam jednu knjigu. As for prepositions, while in generally means inside, corresponding thus to the Croatian word u, we cannot translate u petak as in Friday, because in English we say on Friday.

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