Arabic Language Blog

Difference in prepositions between Arabic and English (Part 2) Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Arabic Language, Grammar

Bazaar in Cairo

The use of prepositions can vary greatly between Arabic and English, and it’s often the case that the worldview of speakers of both languages determines the prepositions they use, which of course depends on context. For example, where Arabic speakers use ‘in’ to refer to days, English speakers use ‘on’, instead.

To continue where we left off last week, we’re going to explore more prepositions (two prepositions) today and look at the differences that exist between those prepositions in Arabic and English.


The first prepositions we’re going to look at is ‘on’:


The most obvious use for this preposition, that is the position ‘on top of’ of an object in relation to a surface, is the same in both languages.

1- The cup is on the desk

الفنجان على الطاولة

Al-finjaan  ʕala  at-tawela


However, ‘on’ can also be used to refer to moving surfaces or objects, such as buses and planes.

2- I’m on the bus.

In Arabic,  على   ‘ala (on) is never used to express this concept. Instead, في  fi (in) is used.

So, the same example would be expressed in Arabic as:


I’m on the bus.

أنا في الحافلة

Ana al-aan  fi  al-haafila


The third way in which the English preposition ‘on’ is used is in reference to the time. For example:

3- I’ll visit you on Monday.

In Arabic, the concept is also expressed differently. In Arabic, one could either use في   fi (in) to refer to days:

I’ll visit you on Monday.

سأزورك في يوم الاثنين

Sa-azour-uk  fi  yawm  al-ithnain


Or one could get rid of the preposition altogether. For example:

I’ll visit you on Monday.

سأزورك يوم الاثنين

Sa-azour-uk  yawm  al-ithnain

*The second instance (no preposition) is usually preferred to the one with ‘fi’ in it.


The second preposition to look at today is:


When ‘about’ is generally used to talk about a topic or a subject matter, which is the most common usage, things are straightforward and both languages express the idea in the same way. As  you can see in the next example, the simple equivalent to ‘about’ in Arabic is ”an’.

1- I talked about Ahmed today

تكلمت عن أحمد اليوم

Takallam-at  ʕan  Ahmed  il-yawm


About can also be combined with the adjective ‘mad’ to create the adjective phrase ‘mad about’. In Arabic, however, we use بِـ  bi and not عن  ”an’. For example:

2- She’s mad about Mike

هي شغوفة (مجنونة) بـمايك

Hiya   shaghoofa-h  (majnoon-ah)  bi-Mike

Finally, and while ‘about’ is again used to refer to ‘estimation of value’, there’s again another preposition in Arabic that is specifically used for this concept, that is  حوالي ‘hawaali’ (approximately).

3- There are about twenty people.

هناك حوالي عشرون شخص

Hunak-a hawaali  ʕishroon  shaks-an


I hope this post helped you to have an idea of the different ways in which prepositions are expressed and used in Arabic and how similar or different they are in relation to Arabic.

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About the Author: Hanan Ben Nafa

Hi, this is Hanan :) I'm an Arabic linguist. I completed my PhD in Linguistics - 2018. My PhD thesis was entitled Code-switching as an evaluative strategy: identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals. I'm also a qualified public service translator & interpreter.


  1. Scheich Josef:

    مرحبا يا حنان

    The correct use of prepositions in a foreign language is rarely mentioned in textbooks even though it is indeed a difficult task. Therefore your discussion of their different use in English and Arabic is very valuable. Concerning the preposition “on” in your Part 2 one might also mention في الشارع for “on the street”.

    Unfortunately – especially for beginners – there are several slips of pen in your Part 1 and Part 2.

    For example, in the first sentence for the preposition “About” the Arabic verb for “I talked” should be “Takallam-tu” instead of “Takallam-at”.

    In the third sentence for the preposition “About” the number عشرون after the preposition حوالي has to be put in the genitive case and an extra alif has to be added to شخص, thus resulting in the Arabic sentence: هناك حوالي عشرين شخصا.

    Maybe one can still revise Part 1 and Part 2 of your post and then delete my comment.

    مع السلامة


    • Hanan Ben Nafa:

      @Scheich Josef Hi Yusef

      Thanks for your reply.

      These slips are not actually slips but they are intended and they are ‘simplifications’.
      This is not a place where I teach standard Arabic and اعراب وتشكيل so تشكيل wasn’t my main concern in this blog because it is mainly about prepositions.

      Also, these slips are totally acceptable in spoken Arabic today, even on the news. People rarely say takallmt-u. Most of us say ‘takallamt without worrying too much about the endings as long as it’s grammatically correct. The same goes for شخصا . we usually say شخص for the sake of simpplicity.

      Again, my approach in these blog is communicative. There are thousands of text books for MSA but hardly anything about communicative side of Arabic. As a native speaker of Arabic, I prefer communication to perfection when it comes to learning a language as difficult as Arabic. In order to communicate with people, you need to get your prepositions right, not تشكيل


  2. Jan:

    Thank you! This is exactly what we need (people learning arabic for the sake of communication). Arabic dialects are indeed simple and straight-forward compared to MSA so that makes it much easier to learn it.