If we compare European languages, the choice of preposition in many expressions may seem quite arbitrary, e.g. French s'interesser à = German sich interessieren für = English be interested in. The most common of these expressions may be learnt relatively easily from reading and listening, but others often continue to cause problems for a long time, partly because of interference from the student's own language (NOTE: this is a different question from that of English PHRASAL VERBS, where the addition of a preposition or adverbial particle can completely change the meaning of the verb - e.g. get by = manage to survive; look back on = remember).
In reality, a good understanding of how particular prepositions are used in each language can make the choice of the right one much easier.
"About" usually indicates the object of our thoughts or conversation, etc. We can chat / dream / talk / think / worry about something or someone; be angry / anxious / concerned / sorry / worried about s.t. or s.o.; and have a conversation / a dream / a talk / ideas or thoughts about s.t. or s.o. (NOTE: We have a debate or discussion about something, but we debate or discuss something).
Less commonly, mainly with verbs of movement, "about" can mean around (= to different places): get about / kick s.t. about / knocks.t. about / look about / run about / stroll about/ travel about / walk about / wander about:
"At" often refers to the object of observation: gaze / look / peer / stare / have a look / take a look (or a peek) at something or someone. It can also express our surprised reaction: be amazed / shocked / surprised at s.t or s.o.
"At" sometimes refers to our interaction with people. We can smile or wave at people. To shout at / yell at someone or throw something at someone is an expression of anger. For normal communication we use to:
Another use of at is after a number of adjectives indicating various degrees of ability or skill. We can be bad / brilliant / clever / good / hopeless / skillful / terrible / terrific at something or doing something: Ron is good at sport but bad at remembering his training sessions.
Remember that we can arrive / be / stay at a specific place (at the airport / the office / school / a hotel, etc.), but we say to arrive / be / stay in a town, city or country (in London / in Australia,etc.). We also say to arrive or come home.
"For" doesn't usually present many difficulties. We can do something for someone else or for a cause, act or speak for someone, be responsible or have a responsibility for s.t or s.o., have a reason for something, pay for s.t., and hunt / look / search / appeal (or conduct a search or make an appeal) / wait for s.t. or s.o.:
The most usual meaning of "from" is from one place to another (drive/ go / hurry / make one's way / return / rush / walk, etc. from A to B), or from one person or subject to another, including the verbs to borrow / get / receive / steal / take / transfer s.t. from somewhere, someone or something, and such nouns as an influence / inspiration / theft from somewhere, someone, or something:
Similarly, we can translate a text from one language to or into another: She translated the novel from English into French.
Other meanings of from include suffer from (an illness or medical condition): She suffers from hypertension; apart from (= except): Everybody agreed, apart from David; different from: Their climate is very different from ours; protect someone from a danger.
The Grammar blog is written by Stephen Smith who has been a teacher with OISE for over 10 years.