What’s the Difference between BY and WITH?

If you can remember, we had a lesson on prepositions previous to this.  Today, we will continue that grammar topic with a little more focus on the differences between BY and WITH. We will not be talking about various prepositions in English grammar, but will only be spending time understanding BY and WITH better.

So, let’s start by identifying which one is correct and which one is wrong from the following:

1) I learned how to cook Italian dishes by watching YouTube videos.


2) I learned how to cook Italian dishes with watching YouTube videos.

Another is:

1) I go to the nearest cafe by foot.


2) I go to the nearest cafe with foot.

Next example:

1) I write my diary with a silver pen.


2) I write my diary by a silver pen.

If your answers are all number 1, then you nailed it! BY and WITH are easily confused and mistakenly used. Even though both have similarities, they are also used differently.

Let’s look at their similarities first.  So how are they the same? They both answer the question of HOW.

For example, how do you learn cooking Italian dishes?

Answer: BY watching YouTube videos.

How do you go to the nearest cafe?

Answer: BY foot.

How do you write your diary?

Answer: WITH a silver pen.

Also, when someone asks you, how do you like your tea, with milk or without milk?

Answer: WITH milk.   (Or perhaps in your case, without milk).

You saw from the sentences above that BY and WITH answer the same question: HOW. But they are a little bit different, too. Now, what are these differences? Let’s look at these sentences and try to focus on what comes after “BY”.

1) I shut the garage doors by pushing the button.

2) I stay fit by not eating anything after 6 PM.

3) I go to the cabin at the lake by riding my bike.

4) I spend my weekend afternoons by hiking in the woods.

5) My girlfriend spends her free time by listening to classic songs.

So after BY, we often have a verb, especially when we’re explaining how something is done. Here are the verbs from our examples:






These are all verbs that end with ING. This time, let’s try and answer the following questions on how you do things. Take note of this pattern when explaining how something is done:

BY + VERB + ing

1) How do you prepare for the exams?

I prepare for exams by studying my notes and other resources two weeks before the exams day.

2) How do you study English?

I study English by listening to audio books and writing down new words that I hear.


Now compare by using the verb without ING:

I go to school by take a bus.

I show my love to friends by give them gifts.

So, don’t they sound off? Try using “taking” and “giving”, and you’d sound just like a native speaker!

Here are more general rules in the use of BY. When saying general rules, I mean that there are also many instances when they are not followed. But it will do us good when we keep these very basic points in mind.

So far, we’ve learned that we use BY with a verb+ing to explain how to do something. But we also use it with nouns. Just a refresher, nouns are names of persons, places, things, or ideas.

We also most often use BY to talk about communication and transportation. Here are some examples to make it easier to understand:

1) I will message you tonight by Skype.

2) I will contact you again next week by phone.

3) The group from Peru went there by boat.

4) Dennis came over by a motorbike.

So when we talk about how we communicate, as in items #1 and #2, we use BY. We also use it to talk about how we get from one place to another, as in items #3 and #4.

Here are other nouns of communication:

email, text, messenger, telegram

…and forms of transportation:

subway, airplane, car, train, bicycle, carriage, taxi, ferry

If you notice, another rule is that we don’t use the article a or the:

Correct: I will go there by train.

Wrong: I will go there by a train.

In the same manner that BY answers the question “how do you do something?”, so does WITH.

Before we go to some sentence examples, let’s study the basic rules. We generally use WITH together with nouns and whenever we talk about instruments, tools, and body parts.

Examples here:

1) How do the villagers talk?

They talk with loud voices and large gestures.

2) How did you find the book?

I found it when Todd pointed it with his finger.

3) How does she paint?

She paints with spray guns, small brushes, and paint rollers.

So the pattern to remember now is this:

WITH + noun (body parts, instruments, tools)

Here are other examples:

I clean the yard with a lawn mower.

Japanese and Chinese people eat with chop sticks.

Mom cleaned the table with a white cloth.

Granny bakes cookies with a brick oven.

If you noticed, we can use articles a or the, depending largely on whether the noun is plural or singular.

Mom cleaned the table with a small towel. (singular = towel)

Mom cleaned the table with small towels. (plural = towels)

So, these are a lot to remember, but like we always say: practice makes perfect! And with what we’ve learned today, I’m pretty sure that confusions in the use of BY and WITH will be lesser.

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I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.