5 Best Websites for College Writing Help

It’s 2:00 am, you’re home, in your room, in front of a blank computer screen, and your English Composition assignment is due the next day. You haven’t even started. You’re stuck and have a thousand questions, but the campus Writing Center isn’t open until Monday. You need help, and fast.

Sound familiar?

Never fear! Online help is here! Below is a rundown of the best of the best websites to answer your writing questions.

1. Purdue Owl Writing Lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/)

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Purdue is the go-to source for students and often listed as a source in class syllabi. You can find help on anything from grammar and mechanics, the writing process, thesis statements, outlining, paragraphs, quoting, research, evaluating sources, MLA, APA, ESL – the list goes on and on. To see a comprehensive list of available online help, click on the sitemap.

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If you’re not sure how to format a research paper, Purdue Owl offers several sample papers with instructional notations, as seen above.

2. LEO – Literacy Education Online – (https://leo.stcloudstate.edu/index.html)

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Affiliated with the Writing Center at St. Cloud University, LEO offers an exhaustive list of lessons and handouts. On the homepage, you’ll find easy to navigate links that are listed by the problem a writer might be having, such as I want to make sure my ideas are logical; I’m not sure about where commas go; or I’m writing a research paper and want help with online sources. Each link will take you to additional, detailed links for specific help within each topic.

You could get lost in all the information LEO provides. Start with The Write Place Catalogue for a list of general topics and go from there.

3. Daily Grammar (http://www.dailygrammar.com/)

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This lesser-known website does a great job of simplifying complex grammar subjects in fun, easy-to-understand lessons. If you’re looking for exercises to improve your grammar, Daily Grammar has loads of lessons and quizzes. Perfect for ESL students, the site offers 440 lessons and 88 quizzes. Have no idea what a compound sentence is? They also have a helpful Glossary of definitions to grammar terms.

Daily Grammar also has a blog where lessons are posted Monday-Friday, with a quiz on Saturday. This is a great website for all ability levels.

4. Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/writing)

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Grammar Girl is popular with students for its humorous, easy-to-understand explanations of grammar rules. Though it’s not the easiest to navigate, you can find short articles on simple topics, such as Cannot,’ ‘Can Not,’ or ‘Can’t’: What’s the Difference? or Affect Versus Effect, and even How to Write Good Survey Questions.

While you won’t find handouts or quizzes, Grammar Girl offers a lot of useful information not only on grammar rules but loads of examples of idioms useful for ESL students.

5. Hemingway (http://www.hemingwayapp.com/)

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We had to include one writing app, and Hemingway is getting decent reviews. It works like spellcheck, but is focused on style.

It does a great job of highlighting sentence-level problems, such as overly complex sentences and poor word choices. Do you tend to overuse adverbs? Hemingway will highlight those in blue. Have a problem with passive construction or confusingly-worded sentences? Hemingway will highlight those in yellow.

I pasted the above paragraph into Hemingway, and here’s what it told me:

 

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The awkward adverb is highlighted in blue, and the entire sentence is highlighted yellow, indicating I might need to shorten or reword it.

The app also gives an assessment of the reading level of your writing, and posts the numbers of words, sentences and paragraphs. Although MS Word has some of the same functionality, Hemingway allows you to paste your writing right into the app and gives you immediate feedback, including why the changes are suggested, making it a nifty learning tool as well.

What are your go-to websites or apps for writing help?

 

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The Art of Articles

An article is a word which is always used before a noun. In English, there are only three articles – a, an, and the. When you see an article, a noun will follow; however, the article may be followed by an adjective – such as “the tired dog,” or “the pretty girl.” The article-adjective-noun may also include an adverb, such as “the very tired dog,” or “the extremely pretty girl.”

Technically, an article is considered an adjective, as the article modifies the noun just as an adjective does. Articles are also referred to as “determiners” as they determine whether something is specific or nonspecific. Articles in English are either definite (specific), or indefinite (nonspecific).

THE = Definite Article

The is a definite article, which refers to something specific. For example, “Let’s go to the movie,” refers to a specific movie. If the sentence stated, “Let’s go to a movie,” it could mean any movie, or a nonspecific movie.

Other examples of definite articles:

I want to go to the party. (a specific party, not just any party)
Can a have the cookie? (a particular cookie, not just any cookie)
I want the coat on sale. (a particular sale coat)

Definite articles are also used before names of educational departments, buildings or institutions, such as

I want to go to the University of Nebraska.
He works in the Department of Gerontology.

Definite articles also precede bodies of water and mountain ranges:

I have heard the Great Lakes are beautiful.
Have you been to the Rocky Mountains?
I want to ski the Swiss Alps.

Other notes on definite articles

If you are referring to a country that is only one word, you would not use an article:

I am from Africa. (not the Africa)
I have visited France. (not the France)

You would use an article before the United States, but not America.

You would not use “the” for planets:

Incorrect: The Pluto is the smallest planet.
Correct: Pluto is the smallest planet.

Finally, omit “the” before cities, towns, states, continents, names of streets, languages, nationalities, sports (football), and academic subjects.

But DO use “the” before rivers, oceans, seas, specific points on the globe (the South Pole), geographical areas, deserts and forests.

A and An = Indefinite Articles

A or An are indefinite articles, which refers to a non-specific noun. For example, “Can I get a dog?” refers to any dog in general. In contrast, “Can I get the dog,” is referring to one specific dog.

The beginning letter and sound of a word will determine whether you’ll use A or An.
A singular noun beginning with a vowel will use “an”: an orange; an airplane; an opera. Also, an will precede a noun with a silent “h” such as hour. However, if the “h” is not silent, you would use the article a, such as a horse or a hobby.

A singular noun beginning with a consonant will use “a”; a car; a boy; a tornado. “A” is also used with a singular noun that has a consonant sound, such as university, which begins with a “y” sound, a consonant.

Other examples of indefinite articles:

I’d like to go to a university. (any university will do)
Can I have an apple? (any apple)
I want to see an octopus. (doesn’t matter which one)

We do not use an indefinite article with plural nouns and noncount nouns:

She was wearing red shoes. (shoes is a plural noun)
She has long brunette hair. (hair is a noncount noun)
I want to wear denim jeans to work Friday. (jeans is plural)
I have so much homework to do! (homework is noncount)

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Now you try!

Fill in the blanks to the following sentences.

  1. There are ____ observers who believe that collecting is America’s fastest-growing hobby.
  2. According to Miller’s Fashion Doll, ­­­­­_____ popular magazine for doll collectors, dolls are second only to stamps as ­­­_____ most popular collectible in America, and Barbie is by far _____ most popular collector doll.
  3. While _____ people do make money selling the dolls, most simply have _____ large collection of Barbies and _____ interest in keeping her legacy alive.
(exercises from Bedford St. Martin Exercise Central)

For English Language Learners, visit these resources to learn about articles and for practice:

http://www.eslcafe.com/grammar.html
http://www.usingenglish.com/
http://www.esl-lounge.com/student/index.php

 

 

 

The Mod Squad: How to Banish Misplaced Modifiers

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A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.

The waitress received a large tip with a smile.

The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:

With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:

The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.

The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.

The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.

 

The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:

The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.

Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!

The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.

 

In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.

Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.

Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:

Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.

Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.

If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:

Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.

 

Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:

The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.

This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:

The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.

The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:

Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.

In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:

If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.

As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.


Now you try!

Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.

  • Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin. 
  • Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes. 
  • While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain. 

 

(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)

ESL Spotlight: Verb Combinations

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English sentences sometimes require a combination of a helping verb with a main verb. A helping verb, also known as an auxiliary verb, helps out the main verb, giving more detail in how time is portrayed. Helping verbs always appear before the main verb in a sentence.

According to The Brief English Handbook, English has 23 helping verbs; 9 work only as helping verbs, and the remainder are forms of do, have, and be.

  • do, does, did
  • have, has, had,
  • be, is, was, were, are, am, been, being

In many cases, a verb will not be complete without a helping verb.

  • The doctor will arrive soon.
  • The contract was submitted late.
  • Steve has been studying all night.

In the examples above, the sentences required a helping verb to complete the verb. Without the helping verb, they would not make sense.

Modals

Modals are a type of helping verb that express probability, necessity, or ability. Below is a list of modal verbs:

  • Can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should, ought to

  • He does not know the answer.
  • I should bring a dessert.
  • Dave could come early if needed.

In the examples below, have, has, and had are used with past participles (driven, contributed, slept are all past tense) to form the perfect tense:

  • I have driven all night to get here.
    Vicky has contributed more than anyone.
    Kate had slept later than usual.

In the following examples, is, was, were, are, and am are used with present participles to form the progressive tense:

  • John was working on the furnace.
    Jason is swimming in the lake.
    The students are studying for the finals.

Passive Voice

The passive voice is created by combining a helping verb, is, was, were, are, am, with a past participle. This means that the recipient of the verb or action becomes the subject of a sentence. This is not grammatically incorrect, but a stylistic choice, though your instructor may ask that you avoid passive construction when you can.

  • The boy was thrown from the horse.
    The trees were scorched by the wildfires.
    The kids were bitten by the puppies.

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Verb combinations are often confusing for English language learners. English also has irregular verbs that complicate our understanding, but with practice, you will begin to master verb constructions. Visit the links below for more information and exercises.

  1. A number of recent crashes ____ (raise) questions about the risks of letting new pilots fly at night.
    A. had raised                        B. have raised
  2. The board ____ (state) that approximately eighty people die each year in crashes involving privately flown planes.
    A. has stated                         B. had stated
  3. Some experts ____ (argue) that the number of these types of crashes have decreased over the last twenty years.
    A. have argued                     B. had argued

 

[Examples 1-3 from Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central.]

http://www.englishlanguageguide.com/languagetools/englishverbs.asp

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/01/

http://www.englishgrammar.org/verb-conjugation-exercise/

 

 

 

 

 

Considering Pronouns and Antecedents

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A pronoun takes the place of a noun, and usually refers to a word used earlier in the text called an antecedent (ante=before).  In the sentence, “The teacher brought her dog to class,” the word her refers back to teacher, so teacher is the antecedent of the pronoun her. It would sound awkward to repeat the noun, “The instructor brought the instructor’s dog to class.” In simple sentences like this, it’s clear what noun the pronoun is replacing.

The pronoun’s antecedent must agree in number, either singular or plural form, with the noun to which it references:

The boy wandered off the path, and he became lost. (singular noun = boy; singular pronoun = he)

The instructors must administer their exams before Friday. (plural noun = instructors; plural pronoun = their)

Of course, the previous examples are simple sentences, and pronoun-antecedent agreement becomes more complicated with more complex sentences.

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Effective writing communicates clearly, and the overuse of pronouns can lead to confusing sentences. Beginning writers often overuse pronouns when using the noun would help clarify the sentence, as in the examples below:

EX:

CONFUSING            After Dave studied with John, he realized he still did not understand   trigonometry.

CLEAR                      After studying with John, Dave realized he still did not understand trigonometry.

CONFUSING            After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered they were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the flowers were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the potting soil was full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that both were full of insects.

 

Avoiding Indefinite Use of It and They

Indefinite pronouns refer to a non-specific person, place, or thing. It and they are often used to make reference to people or situations, but in writing, they sound vague and can lead to confusion. To solve this particular error, name who “they” is:

EX:

VAGUE                      It is said that the unemployment rate is declining.

CLEAR                      The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is declining.
VAGUE                      They said that the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

CLEAR                      MIT researchers said the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

 

As you can see, the revised sentence is much clearer when the noun is used.

Now you try!

Below are some sentences with pronoun-antecedent problems. Correct the underlined error:

 

______________1. Both the computer monitor and the refrigerator door have its shiny surface smeared with dog snot from our curious puppy Oreo.

______________2. The new and improved laundry detergent restored Hector’s mud-stained pants to its original condition.

______________3. After feeding several quarters into the gumball machine, a person learns that they have little chance of receiving the miniature camera in the display.

______________4. Mrs. Carson, like every other American literature teacher, has their own interpretation of the symbols in Moby-Dick.

______________ 5. A person who eats too many jawbreakers risks loosening their fillings.

 

(Above quiz courtesy of Grammar Bytes)

 

What Makes Good Writing and How to Make Your Writing Better

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As we embark on a new fall term here at Metro Community College and many students will be taking their first college English class, let’s talk about what actually makes good writing. Of course, there are many variables in effective academic writing, but below, we’ll discuss writing in relation to freshman writing expectations.

First Things First: Follow Assignment Guidelines

Has your instructor given you assignment directions, either in the syllabus, or a separate handout in class? Perhaps your instructor will assign reading from your text, and ask you to follow the guidelines in the assigned chapter. Assignment directions should be read, re-read, and critically analyzed if you expect to meet the instructor’s expectations. We see numerous low marks on well-written essays that fail to follow the assignment guidelines. If your guidelines direct you to write a “critical analysis” of a short story, and you write a “summary,” your grade most likely will reflect this oversight.

Use Standard Written English

You might think this is obvious, but many beginning writers fall into slang, colloquialisms, and even text-speak when writing. You most likely know and unconsciously follow the rules of standard written English, but it’s easy to fall into ingrained speech patterns when we write. Slang is perfectly acceptable for conversation, but in writing, it can get in the way of the writer’s message and distract the reader. In persuasive writing, falling into an informal tone or slang will lead your reader to conclude your writing shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write Effective Sentences

What makes an effective sentence? It’s about choosing the best words, understanding parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adverb), and organizing the words in the most logical order.

In contrast, ineffective sentences often utilize poor word choice, confuse parts of speech, and organize the words in illogical and sometimes grammatically incorrect order.

One of the most common punctuation errors made in freshman writing classes is a comma splice. A comma splice is incorrect punctuation created by combining two independent clauses with a comma to separate the two clauses. An independent clause is a full sentence, containing a subject and predicate (ex. noun, verb, object). If you are not able to identify what parts of speech make up a sentence, you will most likely have grammatically incorrect sentences.

To learn more about sentence-level issues, click here to read more.

Write Effective Paragraphs

Effective paragraphs are unified, focusing on one main point. In persuasive writing, the one main point of the paragraph will support one main idea from your thesis.

An effective paragraph is cohesive, each sentence logically flowing from sentence to sentence. In turn, each paragraph should logically flow one to the next with effective transitional sentences.

Effective paragraphs are fully developed, containing enough information to fully convey the main idea of the paragraph in a thorough way. In research papers, direct quotes are smoothly integrated into the text, and contextualized in the writer’s own words. Paragraphs avoid beginning or ending with direct quotes.

Effective paragraphs utilize topic sentences, commonly the first sentence of the paragraph, though it may come later or be implied. To read more about introductory and concluding paragraphs, click here.

Know Your Audience

Effective writers understand who their audience is and what they know about their topic. If you are writing a persuasive essay to lower the drinking age, a reading audience of your state’s alcohol commission would be persuaded with a different line of reasoning than a group of seventeen-year-olds. Effective writing always takes into consideration who the audience is, what they know, and how they feel about their topic.

Writing is a Process

When we write, we do more than sit in front of a blank computer screen and type. Thinking, planning, drafting, and revising are all part of the process of writing effectively. Most college-level writing classes will expect you to write several drafts of your assignment, and may require you to turn in each draft for assessment. Waiting until the night before the due date to begin writing a college-level essay can be a costly mistake.

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Final Thoughts

If you feel your writing skills are lacking or need improvement, don’t wait to seek help. Your instructor may be able to offer assistance, or visit your writing center for help. You can visit writing centers at any stage of the writing process, even to brainstorm topic ideas.

If you have questions, ask! Guaranteed, if you have a question, others do as well, but may be too embarrassed to ask.

Below, you’ll find links to more online resources.

Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab – A wonderful resource for anything writing-related.

Bedford St. Martin’s – Tutorials on grammar, punctuation, and other writing-related topics.

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips – A popular and easy-to-understand website on all things writing.

MCC Writing Center – Our own Writing Center’s website with a link to student resources.

Pesky Prepositions

(This post originally appeared Jan. 2014)

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Prepositions are important structural words that create a relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of a sentence, expressing a relationship between time, space, and other senses. Prepositions are one of those parts of speech that garner little attention, but can cause all sorts of trouble, especially for English language learners.  We say we are at a café to visit a friend who was in the hospital. We watch a show on TV but at a movie theater. They sit on the couch, while he sits in the chair, but she lies in bed!

Below is a list of some of the most commonly used prepositions:

about, above, after, against, along, among, around, as, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, despite, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, out, over, past, since, through, to, toward, under, until, up, upon, with, without.

What makes prepositions so confusing is that many prepositions have a wide range of meaning, depending on how they are used in a sentence. Note in the following example how English uses in and on:

The apples are in the bowl.
The apples are on the table.
I spilled apple juice on my dress.

Many languages don’t use prepositions at all, and some languages, such as Spanish, would use the same preposition (en) in all of the previous examples.

I learned to remember space-related prepositions by thinking about what a squirrel can do to a tree. A squirrel can go
around a tree
behind a tree.
below a tree.
beneath a tree.
in a tree.
onto a tree.
over a tree.
toward a tree.
up a tree.
under a tree.

In the squirrel examples above, the preposition shows the relationship between the squirrel and the tree (object of the preposition).

The squirrel prepositions are, as noted, space-related prepositions, as they show the object (tree) in relation to space. Prepositions can relate to time, place, and movement.

Prepositions for Time:

In                     In January, 1978, the Midwest suffered a terrible blizzard.

On                   On Monday, we’ll begin a new unit.

At                    At midnight, the ball will drop in Times Square.

For                  He waiting in line for two hours.

Since             I haven’t been back home since 2008.

When referring to a month or year, we don’t use “on,” unless the specific day is given:

On January 21, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Prepositions for Place

In                     We were riding in the car.

On                   Leave the book on the table.

At                    She is waiting at the entrance.
You could also ride on a car, but that means you would literally be on the outside of the car:
The beauty queen rode on the car [in the parade].

You could leave the book in the table, if you are placing it inside a drawer:
Leave the book in the table[’s drawer].

You could be waiting in the entrance, which would mean you are inside:
She is waiting in the [theater’s main] entrance.


Prepositions for Movement

To                   He went to the movie. OR
He came from the movie.

Into                 She stepped into the bathtub. OR
She stepped out of the bathtub.

Toward         The baby crawled toward his mother. OR
The baby crawled away from his mother.

One of the most common problems with prepositions occurs when prepositional phrases are strung together to create an overly complicated sentence:

It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats (from writing.wisc.edu).

Too many prepositional phrases create plodding prose and a confusing sentence. Can you identify the subject and verb in the previous sentence? I’m not sure I can!

Revised: People with heart problems should avoid high fat foods.

The subject (people) and verb (should avoid) are much clearer in the revised example. The best writing is concise writing, and prepositional phrases often are crutches we lean on a bit too heavily that create wordiness and confusion.

Placement of Prepositions

You probably learned in high school that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of those grammar rules that cause disagreement among grammarians. It’s not always so easy to rearrange the concluding preposition to another place in the sentence. Try rewording the following sentences to move the concluding preposition:

1)    The dress had not been paid for.

2)    Tell him he is taking too much on.

3)    We are such stuff as dreams are made of. (William Shakespeare)

4)    All words are pegs to hang ideas on. (Henry Ward Beecher)

5)    That is nonsense up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

As you can see, even some of our great writers break the rule. Consider this rule a writer’s choice. Whether one considers it right or wrong is a debate we won’t go into. (!)

This is only a tiny bit of all there is to know about prepositions and their uses. As you can see, it takes patience and practice.

Practice!
Fill-in each sentence with a preposition from the list.

Along; down; across; beyond; underneath; after; against

1. I looked ______________________ the hill at the many houses below.

2. Make sure to check ______________________ your bed for your shoes.

3. __________________ we go to the movies, we will go eat at a restaurant.

4. I leaned ______________________ the side of the wall.

5. Can you walk ______________________ with me as we go shopping?

6. If you look ______________________ those trees, you will see a cabin.

7. We will walk _______________________ the street when it is safe. (from englishlinx.com)

Some examples from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/prepositions.htm