Saturday, June 9, 2012

Prepositions 'at', 'on', 'in'

Javier Balsells from Spain asks: Why, when you are on the beach you walk in the sand? But when you are in the street, you walk on foot? Is there any logical rule to it? 

Poliang Lin in the USA asks:
Do we say we read something in a newspaper, or on a newspaper? 

Pilar Velarde in Peru asks:
What are the rules for using to and at? Why is it that you say: I will meet you at the bank and I will go to the bank? 

Weena Kanagpon from Thailand asks: 
Which is correct: in the street or on the street? And how about at the village or in the village?

 At, on and in are the main prepositions in English indicating position. And I think there is some logic for the preference for one of them over the other two in given situations, Javier.

Generally speaking:
  • in is used to specify position inside larger areas;
  • on is used to specify position on a line or continuum;
  • at is used to specify position in a larger place.
Compare the following:
  • 'They were walking on the beach.'
  • 'They were playing in the sand.'
  • 'They were lying on the warm sand, reading their books.'
In the first example, we imagine people at a certain point on their walk along the beach; in the second example a group of children surrounded by sand and having fun in the sand, and in the third example, older children or adults lying on top of the sand, so on is most appropriate here.             

1. In your example, Javier, of people walking in the sand, one imagines soft sand, which their feet sometimes disappear into, but if you said on the sand, we would imagine it as hard sand which their feet do not sink into. Both on and in are therefore possible alternatives in this example.
As we can see, use of an appropriate preposition sometimes depends on how you think about it.

2. In your example, Poliang, we read about things in a newspaper. To find what we are looking for, we usually have to open the newspaper and look inside. Therefore in is the most appropriate preposition. Compare the following:
  • 'I saw it on BBC World, heard about it on the BBC World Service and then read about it in the Guardian Weekly.'

3. In your example, Pilar, 'I will meet you at the bank' the precise location remains vague to the reader. It could be anywhere inside or outside the bank, although the two people who are arranging the meeting obviously know exactly where they are going to meet and do not need to specify it further. Compare the following:
  • 'I bumped into him at the supermarket.' (Precise location unspecified)
  • 'I bumped into him at the checkout in the supermarket.' (Precise location specified)
4. In your example, Weena, it depends upon perspective, really, Weena. Compare the following:
  • 'There were crowds of people on the streets.'
  • 'In the street where I live there are speed bumps every fifty yards.'
In the first example, we imagine someone surveying the crowds from a distance and in the second example the perspective is from inside the street. 

time and place phrases with at, in and on

  A number of you (Kirill from Russia, Cintia from Brazil and Christine from Austria) have been asking about accurate use of the prepositions on, at and in with time and place phrases.

at for time

For clock times we use at, but not usually in the question: 

What time are you leaving for Germany? ~ I shall try to leave at three o' clock.

on for time

For daysdates and times like Sunday evening or Saturday morning, we use on:

I usually do my homework on Sunday eveningon Saturday morning I'm normally at the gym.

Can we do it on Thursday? ~ No, not on Thursday. I'm in Leeds all day on Thursday.

My birthday is on 26th December and then Mark arrives on 27thDecember.

(Note that we write on 27th December, but we say on the 27th of December.)

in for time

For centuriesyearsseasonsmonthsweeks, and for time phrases such as in the afternoon, or in the evening we use in:

In the 17th Century, 200,000 people were executed in America for practising witchcraft.

Brazil first won the World Cup in 1958 and then again in 1962, but in 1966 it was England's turn.

I prefer to take my holidays in the spring and autumn and work in summer when everybody else is on holiday.

I've got my final exams in May. When in MayIn the final week of May.

I work best in the morning. I'll work again in the evening if I have to, but I prefer to relax in the afternoon.

(But note we say at the weekendat Christmasat Easter and at night.)
Note also subtle the difference in meaning between the expressions in time (which means before a given time) and on time (which means exactly at that time):

The 7.53 is always on time, but yesterday it was late.

I couldn't get there in time for the beginning of Jo's concert and missed the opening number.                              

zero prepositon with time phrases

Note that usually no prepositions are used with time phrases beginning with nextlastthiseveryallany:

What are you doing this afternoon? ~ I'm busy this afternoon, but we could do it next week, if you like.

I work from home every Thursday. I'm at home all afternoon tomorrow, so any time would be convenient.

at for place

We use at to specify position at a point:

He failed to stop at the traffic lights and went through the light on red.
I was waiting for at least half an hour at the station, but no train came.
I never seem to have any money at the end of the month. ~ You shouldn't worry about that - I never have any at the beginning of the month.

on and in for place

We use in to specify position inside larger areas such as containers, rooms, towns, countries, etc and we use on to specify position on a line or continuum. Compare the following:

I live in Ostrava. ~ Is that in Slovakia? ~ No, it's in the Czech Republic.

Have you seen my yellow T-shirt? ~ Yes, it's in the wardrobe ~ Whereabouts in the wardrobe? ~ It's on the fourth shelf at the front. ~ Did you find it? ~ Yes, it was on the bottom shelf at the back.

They have lots of family photographs on the walls on the landing, but no curtains at any of the windows.

I'll meet you at the theatre. ~ Where exactly? ~ In the foyer at 7.15.



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