There are actually quite a few reasons why using prepositions such as ON, AT and IN is something difficult for English language learners.
- Firstly, language learners often learn prepositions without understanding the logic that lies behind their meaning. Usually, they are learnt mainly as set expressions - not a great thing if you want to get productive with something and there are literally thousands of expressions to learn with little or no logic behind them.
- Secondly, many people learn languages via translation between English and their native languages. This creates additional difficulties for learning prepositions - they often differ in the native language and do not directly translate well. Additionally, the logic for using a specific preposition in a native language often differs from English and that generally makes correctly using prepositions even harder.
- Thirdly, there are significant differences between British and American English in prepositional use. This really confuses students in a couple of ways. One is that they learn the British/American use of a preposition then they hear or read something very different afterwards. There are many consequences of that.
Let's now think about what ON, AT and IN really mean in English and when and where we use them.
ON[edit | edit source]
to describe two or more objects contacting/touching each other.
- The painting is on the wall = The painting is on the wall = the painting and the wall are contacting/touching each other.
AT[edit | edit source]
for a specific location.
- I’m at home = I’m at home = my specific location is ”home”.
IN[edit | edit source]
something/someone is surrounded by something.
- I am in the room = I am in the room = the walls, floor and ceiling of the room surround me.
- She is in London = She is in London = the buildings and other features of London such as streets and The Thames River surround her.
Use AT or IN[edit | edit source]
Sometimes, it’s possible to use more than one:
- e.g. I’m at the sea = I’m at the sea = my location is the seaside.
- I’m in the sea = I'm in the sea = I’m swimming. There is seawater surrounding me.
- I’m at Central Square = I'm at "Central Square" = my location is a place called "Central Square".
- I’m in Central Square = I'm in Central Square = The features of the location "Central Square" surround me such as lawns, trees and park benches.
NB: British English tends to use "at Central Square" more often whereas "in Central Square" is more frequently used when speaking American English.
Why? My observations as a neutral Australian are that location is generally more important for British people while defining the surroundings is more for Americans.
Use ON or IN[edit | edit source]
Again, there can be more than one possibility,
- e.g. I’m lying on the sand = I'm lying on the sand = my back and the sand are touching. This is the only surface that is touching. The sand does not surround me.
- I’m lying in the sand = I'm lying in the sand = Sand surrounds my body. There is sand surrounding/touching my back and stomach, my hands and my legs.
- I’m on the street = I'm on the street = the emphasis is - my feet are touching the street surface and I'm standing.
- I’m in the street = I'm in the street = The street is the street surface and surrounding buildings and I'm there.
What I've noticed as a native English speaker is that people from cities more often use "in the street" and rural people "on the street" . This applies to British, American and even Australian English speakers.
My theory for this - for country areas, streets of small towns are not surrounded so much by buildings, so on is a more logical preposition to use than in for most rural people.
For "road" , the preposition is almost always on , e.g.,
- Our cat was on the road. I was worried about cars because cats don't really have 9 lives.
It makes sense to use on with "road". Roads are generally wider than streets and further from buildings and other features. So, you are not so "surrounded" by things when you are there.
Both British and American English speakers use at - and not on or in - when talking about a specific street address, e.g.,
- I live at 29 Augustian Street. = I live at 29 Augustian Street.
at is the logical choice - a street address is a very specific location.
Use AT or ON[edit | edit source]
Yet again, there is more than one choice, e.g.:
- The train is waiting at platform 9. = The train is waiting at platform 9 = The train leaves soon = the train's location is "platform 9". or
- I'm on train platform 9. = I'm on train platform 9 = The train leaves soon = the train platform and I are in physical contact with each other for now before I travel by train.
These two examples are easy to understand. The first is all about where the train is located - choose the wrong platform location and you miss your train!
In the second case, physical contact with the train platform is your main worry - you want to be with your train and travelling, not touching the platform!
Things can get a little more complicated. Which one is correct here?
- I'm on train platform 9. = I'm on train platform 9. = I'm waiting for you there. Our train leaves early tomorrow morning.
- I'm at train platform 9. = I'm at train platform 9. =I'm waiting for you there. Our train leaves early tomorrow morning.
An American English speaker will almost always use the first one (it's even taught as a rule in American English - "you use on with 'train platform'"). From the American perspective, why you are there is because someone will be traveling. That's what train platforms are for!
A British English speaker would probably use the first example more often because the train platform is for travel reasons. But the second one would also be quite frequently used - when the train platform is primarily being considered as a place to meet and travelling is not the most important thing in the mind of the speaker.
Use ON, AT or IN[edit | edit source]
It’s possible of course to use all three prepositions at once:
- My carpet is on the floor in the living room at my parents’ place = My carpet is on the floor in the living room at my parents' place:
- my carpet and the floor touch each other
- the walls of the living room surround my carpet and the wall ;
- my carpet, the floor and the living room have the location "my parents’ place".
Each preposition of course is telling us something different.
Final words[edit | edit source]
This is only a small selection of where on, at or in are used.
Remember, there is logic when you use the prepositions on, at or in for most cases! Also, note that British and American English sometimes uses them differently. There are even logical reasons for that.
Practice Exercises[edit | edit source]
Enhance your understanding of the prepositions ON, AT, IN with these exercises. Choose the correct preposition for each sentence:
- The keys are _____ the table. (ON / IN)
- We will meet _____ the coffee shop. (AT / ON)
- She lives _____ New York. (IN / AT)
- The paintings hang _____ museum walls. (ON / IN)
- The cat is sleeping _____ the sofa. (ON / IN)
- My appointment is _____ 3 PM. (AT / IN)
- The flowers are _____ the vase. (IN / ON)
- The book is _____ the shelf above the desk. (ON / AT)
- We are _____ the sea. Later we will swim . (AT / IN)
- The party next week is _______ 8 Bellevue Terrace, Highgate Hill, Sydney. (AT/IN)
Solutions[edit | edit source]
Author[edit | edit source]
Source[edit | edit source]
Other Lessons[edit | edit source]
- Collocations with make
- English words of French origin
- Most Common Greek Roots
- As well as
- Common Mistakes
- Phrasal Verbs with OFF
- How to Say Hello and Greetings