Phrase of the day: either or

As many of you will know, prepositional use in English is a particularly problematic area for learners. Imagine your frustration if you learn the supposedly ‘basic’ meaning of in via a picture that shows, say, a large block dot inside a cube of some kind, but then when you say I’m in the bus, you’re corrected and told it should be I’m ON the bus – despite the fact you’re very clearly not sitting on top of the roof! Time and time again, students are forced to recognise that many of the ways we use prepositions in English are extremely idiomatic and have little to do with ‘basic’ definitions. This also means coming to accept that prepositional phrases can only really be acquired one at a time and that there’s no really fast way of getting to grips with these words.

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On the intensive two-week ENGLISH BOOST we ran in July, one student asked me if they should say the first day in the July summer school or the first day on it. Over the years, I’ve been asked countless questions like this about preposition usage: is it depressed about the news or depressed by it? Do you get angry with someone? Or angry at them? Should I be amazed at how expensive London is or amazed by it? In these cases, my answer is always the same: either or!

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In this context, either or basically means that both options are fine. There’s no real difference between them and you can choose whichever one you personally prefer. It’s a phrase often used to respond to choices you have no strong feelings about, so, for instance, your partner might ask you if you fancy Italian tonight or Chinese. If you’re not bothered either way and really don’t mind, you can just grunt either or – and leave it to them to make the final decision. If you tell a teacher your name is Tatiana, but then they hear you called Tanya by your friends in class, they might then ask which one you would rather they called you, to which you can reply “Either or. It’s totally up to you.

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Of course, learning this phrase won’t help you deal with those pesky prepositions, but it may help you worry slightly less about situations where two options are both OK!

To learn more about our summer school, click here.

  • How do you try and learn prepositions? What’s your approach?
  • When was the last time someone offered you a choice and both options were fine with you?
  • What other areas of English do you find particularly problematic? Why?
  • Do people call you different things in different situations? Give examples.
  • Do you like making the final decision about what to do or do you prefer to leave it up to other people? Why?
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