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Using the Prepositions “In” vs. “On” vs. “At”

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Prepositions are tricky, and there’s no doubt about it. For example, is it “in” a bus or “on” a bus? We’ll go over this and more.

In, on, at, prepositions: Learn how to use them correctly.
“In,” “on,” and “at” are prepositions.
  • Prepositions connect nouns or pronouns to other information in a sentence.
    • The strawberries are in the refrigerator.
  • There are several types of prepositions, including prepositions of time, place, direction, and location.
  • In, On, and at are prepositions of both place and time.
    • I was in the bathroom. (Place)
      The house is located on Washington Street. (Place)
      The reunion will take place at 1234 Wall Street. (Place)
      We are going to Tuscany in July of this year. (Time)
      Let’s get together and study on Friday. (Time)
      Their presentation is at 4:00 PM. (Time)

What Are Prepositions?

Prepositions connect nouns phrases to other information in a sentence. There are different types of prepositions, including prepositions of time, place, direction, and spacial relationship.

What makes prepositions difficult to learn is that many of them fall under several categories. For example: In, on, and at are prepositions of both place and time.

This blog post will go over the prepositions in, on, and at and explain the rules of using them correctly (and their exceptions, of course).

Using “In,” “On,” and “At” as Prepositions of Place

Prepositions of place help indicate where someone or something is. When using in, on, or at as a preposition of place, remember the following:

In is typically used for larger, general places that are within a boundary.

My wife visited her family in Japan.
Clarissa has to travel for the meeting she has in San Francisco.
Do you work in an office or from home?

We should note that in is also used to indicate “inside.”

The ornaments in the box are very expensive.
That piece of cake in the container is getting old.

On is usually used for slightly more specific places (or surfaces).

Their family has lived on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for generations.
Can you place this sign on the door, please?
The kids were screaming because there was a spider on the ceiling.

At is commonly used for the most specific locations or points.

My house is the blue one at the end of the road.
Let’s have lunch at Perricone’s today.
The protest is at the corner of South Miami Avenue and 10th Street.

Here’s another example that uses in, on, and at as prepositions of place:

I visited DJ in New York. He lives on West End Avenue, so we had lunch at The Mermaid Inn.

Using “In,” “On,” and “At” as Prepositions of Time

Prepositions of time indicate when something is happening. Similar to when they’re used as prepositions of place, in, on, and at also go from general to the most specific when used as prepositions of time.

In is usually used for longer, general time periods like months, years, and centuries.

My birthday is in October.
In the year 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon.
Let’s meet tomorrow in the morning.

On is typically used for more specific times, like days, dates, and holidays.

I was born on June 19, 1989.
We have a meeting on Thursday.
My family opens our Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve.

At is used for the most specific times, like precise times of the day.

We’ll eat lunch at 12:00 PM.
We read one story every night at bedtime.
I’m not interested in any promotional offers at the moment.

It’s worth noting that when referring to the weekend, British English uses the expression at the weekend, whereas American English uses the expression on the weekend.

Exceptions to “In,” “On,” and “At”

Of course, because this is the English language and we should expect nothing less, these rules come with exceptions. That being said, let’s answer the question: Is it in a bus or on a bus?

On is usually used for public vehicles (like buses or trains) and vehicles you can walk around in.

I’m on a bus heading home.
We were on a train ride.
Clarissa and I were on a boat all summer
I'm getting on the plane.

However, it’s also used for smaller vehicles, like bicycles and jet skis, for example.

We roamed around on our bicycles.
Jordan is on a jet ski.

But, as if this weren’t confusing enough, you ride in a car.

I have no signal in this car for some reason.

Two more things: Although you meet someone in the morning, you meet them at night. And being at a hospital implies you’re there but aren’t admitted, whereas in the hospital implies you’ve been admitted as a patient.

How To Always Use “In,” “On,” and “At” Correctly

Like we said earlier, prepositions are tricky. There’s a lot to understand to make sure you’re using them correctly. The most important things to remember are:

  • In, on, and at go from general to more specific to the most specific when used as prepositions of time and place. LanguageTool is a multilingual writing assistant that can ensure you’re using prepositions correctly, whether you’re writing a text message, an email, or an essay.

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