Prepositions of time and place in English. When to use IN, AT and ON.
The use of prepositions is a baffling mystery not only for English learners but also for native speakers. Although there are some basic usage rules, there are also so many exceptions to these rules that it becomes quite hard not to make mistakes. Studying unending lists of words and prepositions will, in the end, prove not to be the best way to remember which preposition to use unless you place them in context.
The best way to place prepositions or any other vocabulary in context is by using them, doing exercises, playing grammar games, being corrected whilst speaking and taking notes of these corrections on your notebook, always followed by an example sentence which your memory will be able to later on recall.
Let’s deal with three prepositions that we can be used both for places and time: in, at and on.
IN, AT & ON (PREPOSITIONS OF PLACE)
- With large areas, such as town, cities, parks, etc:
- I saw some squirrels in the park.
- I quite like living in Exeter.
- The kids are plying in the garden.
- It’s the trendiest place in town.
- Geographical areas: countries, continents, etc.
- It’s the smallest country in Europe.
- They’ve been living in the States for a decade.
- We’ve got a cottage in the mountains.
- We’re going for a walk in the countryside.
- It’s the nicest place in the world:
- With rooms, building and places with limits all around them:
- I don’t have a TV in my bedroom.
- They’re getting married in that church.
- I usually keep my laptop in the office.
- I found some coins in my pocket.
- With transport, but just car and taxi:
- There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the taxi.
- Is there any cola left in that bottle?
- I think I put it in that box.
- You’ll find glasses and dishes in that cupboard.
- Cardinal points:
- They live in the south-east of London.
- It tends to rain a lot more in the north.
- River, sea, pool, lake:
- They went for a swim in the sea.
- Book, newspaper, magazine, photograph, picture.
- I can’t find him anywhere in the picture.
- I found out about the accident in the newspaper.
- Mouth, hand:
- I know you’ve got chewing gum in your mouth!
- What have you got in your hand?
- In a line, row, queue:
- We were lucky enough to get some sits in the front row.
- I had to stand in a queue for over half an hour.
- In hospital, prison, jail:
- He spent most of his life in prison.
- Jane’s mother is in hospital waiting for surgery.
- At is used for points of reference in space and specific places (such as home, school, work, university, etc.):
- The car stopped at the traffic lights.
- We’ll meet them at reception.
- The doorbell rang. There must be someone at the door.
- I left my keys at home.
- He’s been working at his desk all morning.
- With events, such as concerts or conferences:
- We had a really good time at last night’s party.
- There were over 100 guests at the wedding.
- Next week I’ll be at the trade fair.
- It’s also used with shops and public places:
- What did you study at university?
- I run into Paul and Fiona at the train station.
- She’s at the hairdresser’s
- He’s not in the office at the moment. He’s at the doctor’s.
- I usually do my shopping at the supermarket.
- With addresses:
- The Prime Minister lives at 10 Downing Street.
- With surfaces (and things that might be thought of as surfaces such as the walls or the ceiling):
- I left the report on your desk.
- There were various pop-star posters on the walls.
- Please write your name and address on a piece of paper.
- There’s some yogurt on your nose.
- He carries a lot of weight on his shoulders.
- There were plenty of oranges on the trees.
- I could not work out the address on the envelope.
- With first, second, third, etc, floor:
- You’ll find our offices on the second floor.
- On the left, right, left hand side, right hand side:
- Take the second turning on the right after the library.
- On the coast:
- Alicante is on the south-east coast of Spain.
- On the river (meaning beside it, ‘en la ribera’)
- London is on the Thames.
- With transport (bus, train, plane, horse, bike, etc.) NOT car or taxi
- He travelled all around the country on his motorbike.
- He was still on the bus when I phoned him.
- On the way:
- I stopped at the butcher’s on the way home.
- On a farm:
- I’m a city girl. I wouldn’t like to live on a farm.
- On a page, menu, list, agenda:
- Your name appears not to be anywhere on the list, Sir.
- On an island:
- There were few inhabitants left on the island.
TAKE THE FOLLOWING INTO ACCOUNT:
- In the corner (indoors, in a room)
- I think I´ll put the plant in that corner.
- On/At the corner (the corner is outdoors, in the street)
- There were a bunch of people arguing at/on the corner of the street.
- On the front/the back of a letter, photo, paper, etc:
- There was something written on the back of the photograph.
- At the bottom, at the top, at the end, at the front, etc:
- You will find the answers at the end of the book.
- Please sign at the top/bottom of the page.
- In the back/front of a car or taxi
- If I’m not driving, I prefer to sit in the front of the car.
Notice the differences:
- We usually have dinner at the hotel when on a business trip.
- All the rooms in the hotel had air conditioning.
- We all had dinner at Anne’s house.
- It’s always cold in Anne’s house.
- On the door, window etc means on its surface: There was a notice on the board.
- At the door, window, etc, means next to it: She was at the window looking out into the garden.
IN, AT & ON (PREPOSITIONS OF TIME)
- Years: They were both born in 1990.
- Months: The course finishes in June
- Decades: My favourite music was recorded in the 90’s.
- Seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter): We usually go to the beach in the summer.
- Times of day (morning, afternoon, evening): She doesn’t have to work in the afternoons.
- Centuries: He was king in the 19th century.
- In Roman Times, in the Middle Ages, etc: This cathedral was built in the Renaissance
- In the past/future: We used to work together in the past.
- Amount of time needed to do something: They managed to get everything ready in a week.
- To indicate the moment in the future when something will happen (in a few minutes, in a moment, in six months, etc.): She’ll be back in five minutes.
- To tell the time: Local shops open at 10am.
- Mealtimes: I stay I the office at lunchtime.
- At night: I wouldn’t like to work at night.
- At midnight: The party started at midnight.
- At weekends/the weekend: We usually go hillwalking at the weekends. (Note: in the USA they say on the weekend).
- Holiday and festival periods (at Christmas, Easter, etc.) I enjoy the festive atmosphere at Christmas.
- At the end of…: We’re especially busy at the end of the month.
- At the moment: She’s away on a business trip at the moment.
- At the same time: They arrived at the station at the same time.
- At present: They’re on holiday at present.
- Days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.): I never work on Sunday.
- On Monday morning, on Thursday evening, etc: I have a course on Friday afternoon.
- Dates: He was born on August 11th, 2010.
- Special days: (Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, birthday) I’ll see all my family on my birthday.
- On holiday, on a trip: I’ll be on holiday for two weeks.
I recommend you to also have a look at this post on LINKING WORDS, essential in both written and oral messages.
Still want more? Have a look at the following posts. Learn new vocabulary, learn to correct your mistakes, even learn a little about British Business culture.
- 12 Sentences to interrupt politely in English
- Talking about advantages and disadvantages in English
- Describing your job in English
- Salary and pay – Business English Vocabulary
If you have any doubts or questions, please do not hesitate (no dudes) to post a message below and I will answer it asap.
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