What’s the preposition, Jack?

Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ is a book that radically changed the way I felt about reading in English in my late teens. It kicked the doors down and opened up new worlds in much the same way as the music I was discovering at the same time. Personally, this book marked a before and after and set me on a road of discovery.

But hey, we’re not here for the personal, we’re here for the prepositions. The preposition is ‘on’ because the road is a surface and that’s the key to understanding this particular use of ‘on’. Think of the words printed on the page, the posters on a teenager’s bedroom wall, the red wine you spilt on your favourite white shirt.

And then from the back of the classroom someone says «So why is it ‘in the street’ then? What’s the difference between a road and a street?» Well, the thing is that when we think of a street it’s something 3-dimensional; it’s not just a surface, it’s the shops, the flats, a soon-to-open English academy and so on.

Now’s the time to remember that you might well hear our American cousins talking about being ‘on the street’. That’s cool, that’s American English.

Now let’s move from prepositions to punctuation. You can hardly contain your happiness, I know. The original draft of ‘On the Road’ was written entirely ON a 120-foot scroll of paper with almost no punctuation, which is totally and undeniably cool. And is also great if you’re a 1950’s Beat Generation writer, but not if you’re doing writing tasks for your English teacher or for an official exam.

What I’m referring to here is a common problem that we teachers find when correcting students’ writing. There is a tendency for students (not you, I know it’s not you!) to write excessively long sentences, held together by nothing but commas, when a full stop followed by a linking word would be so much better. You could also use a a semi-colon; semi-colons are such a great way of linking related but independent clauses. Jack Kerouac would tell you the same thing.

So save your punctuation free, stream of consciousness writing for the books you might want to write and also bear in mind the ‘ON a surface’ thing – at least we’ve found one easy rule for prepositions.

Here are a couple of great songs from the sixties that may serve to reinforce that in/on thing:

And this from everyone’s favourite 1969 counterculture film – hell yeah!!

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