How to Teach Adjective + Preposition Collocations

By Alex Case
How to present prepositions after adjectives, including the most useful examples to teach, and suitable topics for the presentation stage

By far the most difficult part of learning adjectives like “happy” and “skilful” is which of “about”, “of”, “at”, etc is needed to link them to the follow noun, pronoun or gerund. This article gives some teaching tips.

What students need to know about prepositions after adjectives

The main thing students need to do is to memorise the relevant preposition with every adjective that they learn, e.g. “nervous about” when they learn “nervous”. Luckily, there are some patterns that they should be able to work out from suitable examples, such as:

  • “at” with levels of skill (“good at”, “terrible at”, etc)
  • “by” with adjectives that are past participles (“I was impressed by his performance”, because it is the same as using “by” with passive voice to mean “His performance impressed me”)
  • “from” for things that are taken or kept away (“safe from”, “free from”, “absent from”, “protected from”, etc)
  • “to” with its literal meaning of towards, like the opposite of “from” above (“attached to”, “attracted to”, “friendly to”, “receptive to”, “married to”, etc)
  • “with” with its usual meaning of “together” (“associated with”, “compatible with”, etc)

There are also examples where the preposition just has its general meaning without any change because of the adjective before it, as in “present at the meeting” simply meaning “at the meeting”.

More generally, adjectives with the same, similar and opposite meanings often take the same preposition, as with:

  • angry about/ furious about
  • careful about/ careless about
  • curious about/ incurious about
  • enthusiastic about/ mad about/ excited about/ crazy about
  • happy about/ sad about/ depressed about/ pleased about/ delighted about/ ecstatic about
  • nervous about/ anxious about/ worried about/ stressed about/ calm about/ relaxed about
  • optimistic about/ pessimistic about
  • amazed at/ surprised at/ shocked at
  • angry at/ annoyed at/ irritated at/ mad at
  • successful at/ unsuccessful at
  • disgusted by/ revolted by
  • disturbed by/ undisturbed by
  • encouraged by/ discouraged by
  • impressed by/ unimpressed by/ disappointed by
  • inspired by/ motivated by/ uninspired by
  • surprised by/ amazed by/ astounded by/ astonished by/ shocked by/ unsurprised by
  • eligible for/ ineligible for
  • famous for/ known for/ renowned for/ respected for/ infamous for/ notorious for
  • grateful for/ thankful for/ ungrateful for/ sorry for
  • prepared for/ ready for/ unprepared for
  • sorry for/ apologetic for
  • suitable for/ right for/ unsuitable for/ wrong for
  • experienced in/ unexperienced in
  • involved in/ uninvolved in
  • skilled in/ talented in/ unskilled in
  • successful in/ unsuccessful in
  • afraid of/ scared of/ frightened of/ terrified of/ petrified of/ unafraid of
  • appreciative of/ unappreciative of
  • ashamed of/ proud of
  • aware of/ conscious of/ unaware of
  • capable of/ incapable of
  • envious of/ jealous of
  • full of/ empty of
  • guilty of/ innocent of
  • kind of/ nice of/ sweet of
  • silly of/ sensible of
  • typical of/ untypical of
  • accustomed to/ used to/ unaccustomed to/ unused to
  • beneficial to/ harmful to/ damaging to
  • committed to/ dedicated to
  • dedicated to/ devoted to
  • friendly to/ unfriendly to
  • kind to/ cruel to
  • receptive to/ indifferent to/ opposed to
  • related to/ similar to/ unrelated to
  • rude to/ impolite to/ polite to
  • similar to/ dissimilar to
  • superior to/ inferior to
  • angry with/ furious with
  • associated with/ linked with
  • blessed with/ cursed with
  • bored with/ fed up with
  • busy with/ occupied with
  • careful with/ careless with
  • comfortable with/ okay with/ uncomfortable with
  • compatible with/ incompatible with
  • crowded with/ packed with/ cluttered with
  • familiar with/ unfamiliar with/ acquainted with/ unacquainted with
  • happy with/ content with/ pleased with/ delighted with/ satisfied with/ disappointed with

Useful ones to teach which don’t fit above include, in approximate order of importance:

  • interested in
  • keen on
  • allergic to
  • fond of
  • addicted to
  • responsible for
  • dependent on
  • equal to

As can be seen above, some adjectives take more than one preposition, often with a change in meaning like:

  • mad at (angry at)/ mad about (very keen on)
  • happy about something/ happy for someone
  • angry at (aimed at someone)/ angry about (a topic)
  • bored by (not interested)/ bored with (fed up with/ had enough of)
  • kind to him (helping him)/ kind of him (helping me)
  • friendly of him (to me)/ friendly to him (from me)

There are also regional differences, as in “different from/ than/ to”.

How to present adjective plus preposition collocations

If students already know the adjectives, it should be easy for them to start with a comprehension task or production task that includes “happy about”, “disappointed by”, etc, before the prepositions are explained. Topics which could bring up many of the adjectives above include:

  • first dates
  • (good and bad/ memorable/ life-changing) experiences (of travel, etc)
  • workmates/ teamwork
  • life stages (ceremonies, celebrations, exams, etc)
  • (reactions to) arts and media
  • overcoming difficulties
  • expectations and reality
  • (online) reviews (vs your own experiences)
  • job applications
  • online profiles
  • (people’s impressions of/ the reality of) famous people
  • (making up for) mistakes/ complaints
  • pranks
  • learning moments
  • interactions with strangers
  • (choosing/ training for/ good and bad) managers
  • blessings in disguise

There are many possible activities with such topics. For instance, you could give students a subject like “Being a teacher” and ask them to rank suggested adjectives that could be important in that situation like “Patient with parents” and “Skilled at using computers”. Students can then be tested on their memory of the prepositions that went with the words that they just saw/ used, before they try to find patterns in what kinds of words go with each.

How to practise adjective plus preposition collocations

There are fun practice activities in the article 11 Adjective Plus Preposition Games.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET June 2024
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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