Prepositions expressing spatial relations are of two kinds: prepositions
of location and prepositions of direction.
Both kinds may be either positive or negative.
Prepositions of location appear with verbs describing states or
conditions, especially BE; prepositions of direction appear with verbs of
motion. This handout deals with
positive prepositions of location that you may be having difficulty with: at,
on, and in.
The handout is divided into three sections.
The first explains the spatial relationships which the three prepositions
express. The second and third
contrast special uses of IN and ON, and IN and
differ in how many dimensions in space they refer to. We can group them, using concepts from geometry, into three
classes: 1) point, 2) surface, 3) area or volume.
are brief descriptions of these three dimensions:
in this group indicate that the noun that follows them is treated as a point in
relation to which another object is positioned.
in this group indicate that an object’s position is defined with respect to a
surface on which it rests.
in this group indicate that an object lies within the boundaries of an area or
within the confines of a volume.
light of these descriptions, at, on,
and in can be classified as follows:
meanings of the three prepositions can be illustrated with some sample
My car is
at the house.
a new roof on the house.
is in Tippecanoe County.
five rooms in the house.
In the living room is a lovely
1) the car is located in relation to the house, conceived of as a fixed point.
In 2) the house, specifically the ceiling, is treated as a two-dimensional surface upon which another object, the roof, is placed.
3) the house is located within a geographical area.
4) the house becomes a three-dimensional structure which can be divided into
smaller volumes---namely, rooms--and inside one of the rooms is an object, the
further comment. Because it is the
least specific of the prepositions in its spatial orientation, it has a great
variety of uses. Here are some of
Tom is waiting for his sister at
b) Sue spent the whole
afternoon at the fair.
We arrived at the house at six.
b) Sue spent the whole
afternoon at the fair.
The policeman leaped at the assailant to apprehend him.
b) The dog jumped at
my face and really scared me.
intersection: I’ll meet you at the
corner of Fifth and Main.
6a), the bank can be taken to be a point that defines Tom’s location, much as
in 1) above.
6b) it makes less sense to think of a fair as a point since fairs are usually
spread out over a fairly large area. Probably
at is used in this case because it is
the least specific preposition; it defines Sue’s location with respect to the
fair rather than some other place.
7a), at exhibits its cause/effect
relationship with to, which cannot be
used here: arrival at a place is the result of going to it.
For more on this, see the handout “Prepositions of Direction: To, (On)to,
sentences in 8) show that, with certain verbs of motion, at may be used with the same meaning as its directional counterpart to,
that is, of direction toward something. Again,
see the directional prepositions handout.
9) a special case of the general use of at
is used since lines intersect at points physical objects resembling them like
streets, paths, and so on do the same.
the remainder of the handout, we will look at special problems that arise in
choosing in and on or in and at
denoting enclosed areas, such as field or window, take both on
and in. The preposition
have their normal meanings with these nouns: on
is used when the area is considered as a surface, in when it is presented as a two-dimensional area:
Three cows are grazing in the field. (area)
A face appeared in
the window. (area)
that in implies that the field is
enclosed, whereas on may or may not
imply this since it implies only that the following noun denotes a surface and
not necessarily an area:
The sheep are grazing in the
pasture. (area enclosed by a fence)
The cattle are grazing on the open range. (not
Three players are on the basketball court. (enclosed
Three players are on the soccer field. (not
area has metaphorical instead of literal boundaries, as when field means
“academic discipline,” in is
She is a leading researcher in her
common uses of in or on
occur with street. The first two
follow the rules for using in and on. The third is an
idiom that must be learned as a unit.
children are playing in the street.
The street is understood to be an area enclosed by
the sidewalks on either side.
is on Third Street.
locates the house on either side of Third Street--it does not mean that the
street is a surface on which the house sits.
Because the street is conceived of as a line next to which the house is
situated, on functions much like at
in its normal use in that it locates the house in relation to the street.
As such, it does not specify the exact address.
For that purpose, at is used,
because the address is like a particular point on the line.
Compare: Our house is at 323 Third Street.
declared bankruptcy last week, and now he is out on the street.
Out on the
street is an
idiom meaning “poor” or “destitute.”
and on are also used with means of transportation:
in is used with car, and on
with public or commercial means of transport:
on the bus on the plane
on the train
on the ship
Some speakers of English make a further distinction
for public modes of transportation, using in
when the carrier is stationary and on
when it is in motion:
My wife stayed in/on
the bus while I got out at the rest stop.
The passengers sat in/on the plane awaiting takeoff.
for place names:
in Tippecanoe County
in the Sahara
in the Andes
the Shenandoah Valley
also used for common nouns denoting geographical locations:
in the desert, in
the valley, in the mountains (but on
the mountain when its sides are perceived as a surface).
for the North and South poles since these are thought of as points.
uses of prepositions with geographic nouns conform to their ordinary uses.
Thus, we can say all of the following:
They are spending the summer at
We found a crab washed up on
Their summer cottage is on the
4a) the shore is meant as a point that fixes the family’s location during the
current or upcoming summer. In 4b)
the shore is a surface on which the crab is lying.
In 4c) we have almost the same use as in 3b) in the previous section.
is used with proper nouns denoting public buildings and public institutions: at Purdue, at the
Pentagon, at the Capitol.
common nouns denoting public buildings, at
is used when they are conceived of as institutions, and in is used when they are conceived of as three—dimensional
physical structures. In the
sentences that follow, at is used
because Tom is at a place for a purpose connected with its institutional
Tom is at
the bank depositing his check.
Tom is at
city hall applying for a zoning permit.
Tom is studying at
contrast, in means physical presence
inside of a three-dimensional structure, as in its ordinary spatial use.
It may thus further imply that a person is there for a purpose unrelated
to the place’s primary function:
Tom is in
the bank waiting for his father.
They are studying in the Sweet Shop.
the use of at with institutions and in
with buildings holds quite generally, the basic meanings of at
and in can also be used with common
nouns denoting institutions as readily as they can with other nouns.
has its ordinary meaning of “inside,”
but at may mean either “inside” or “outside,” depending on two
things: 1) where the speaker is in relation to the place being talked about; 2)
whether the person spoken about is there for purpose of the institution or not.
the speaker is physically present near the building, in is used, whether or not the person spoken about is there for the
purpose of the institution.
for purpose of the institution:
is studying in the library.
is in the supermarket buying
groceries for the party.
present for the purpose of the institution:
is studying in the Sweet Shop.
is waiting for his father in the
the speaker is not physically near the building, or, more exactly, when the
speaker’s location is defined by referring to some other building, even if it
is close by, at is used.
When the person spoken about is not in a place for its institutional
purpose, at may mean either inside or
is waiting for his sister at the
the person spoken about is in a place for its institutional purpose, at
normally means that she is inside. The
preferred interpretation would be the same if the person’s purpose were not
specified: that is, she is inside for the institutional purpose.
is at the library studying. (in the
is at the bank depositing her check. (inside
is at the grocery store. (inside
the store, shopping or working)
nouns denoting places of temporary confinement, in instead of at
expresses the primary purpose of being in an institution.
This is a natural extension of the ordinary spatial meaning of on.
In this case, at expresses a secondary purpose.
Generally, in implies an
extended stay, while at means a brief
Tom is visiting Jane at the
Tom is in
the county jail visiting George.
idioms in school and at
school have very different meanings.
“He is in
school” means he is currently attending school.
“He is at
These are American English idioms.
Their meanings are reversed in British English; if you learned the
latter, be careful to keep this difference in mind.