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A big thanks to my student Ŝano for this question. When do you use el and when do you use de?
Prepositions are very much the heart of a language. To master a language, it is essential to know both how to use them and which one to use when. This is true of Esperanto as well. I’ve written about prepositions here before: Keys to understanding Esperanto pepositions, Je the “wildcard” preposition, How to say a glass of water. This last one touched on confusion between de and da… but what about de and el?
If you look up “from” in a bilingual dictionary, you’ll see both de and el. So, which one do you use? The confusion doesn’t seem to be limited to native English speakers, but there are differences.
First, let’s recap what we learned about de in our discussion about glass of water.
It can show attachment or belonging.
It can also show who did something.
It can also show a starting place or time (“from” in contrast to “to”).
The basic meaning of “el”, in contrast is “out of” — that is, starting inside something and moving out.
It can also mean “out of” in the sense of “made out of.”
There are many examples where you could use either. Sometimes the meaning is subtly different. Sometimes there isn’t a great difference.
In these cases, there may be a right answer (I’m not telling!) but you’ll see both and it’s not really a big deal.
I’ve run this question by several fluent speakers and have received various answers. I’ve always seen this as a question of attachment. (“What country do you belong to?”) Others see it as coming “out of” a place. (You started out inside your country of origin.) Others still say it doesn’t make a big difference and in conversation they probably wouldn’t notice which preposition was used. I’m starting to agree with this third group. My sense is that de is more logical here but el is more traditional (and certainly makes logical sense to the people who use or have used it.) You’ll see it both ways so don’t stress about that.
In other cases, it’s more clear which answer is correct, even if we’re tempted to use the wrong one.
It’s tempting to say “de” here (of) but “el” is the right choice. You’re selecting “out of” the list. They’re in the list and you’re pulling them out to talk about.
Thanks so much for reading and please comment to let me know what you think. Which prepositions cause you trouble?