Tricky grammar: ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘at’

Time to master three key prepositions in English!

If there’s one thing both beginners and advanced students of English have trouble with, it’s prepositions! Used to talk about time and places, the prepositions ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘at’ can prove particularly confusing given their similar uses. Ready to learn when to use them? Read on!

 

In

When talking about location, the preposition ‘in’ refers to an enclosed space or areas whose limits are specified.
Examples: ‘There are many people in the classroom’; ‘Patty’s Cakes is the best coffee house in the city of London.’

If we want to talk about time, ‘in’ generally describes long periods of time (such as months or years) as well as the different parts of the day (with the sole exception of ‘at night’).
Examples: ‘We are travelling to New York in August!’; ‘I always try to do yoga in the morning.’

 

On

‘On’ is generally related to surfaces such as tables or floors. It can also take on a metaphorical meaning sometimes, which is why we always say ‘on the Internet’!
Examples: ‘Peter left the keys on the table’; ‘You can find lots of extra information on the website’.

In relation to time, ‘on’ generally refers to days and dates.
Examples: ‘We normally go to the gym on Fridays’; ‘There will be a big party at our house on July 4th.’

 

At

‘At’ normally refers to a specific place, such as a café or an airport. In some cases, ‘at’ and ‘in’ can be used in the same sentence with a difference in meaning. ‘I will see you at the café’ implies that the speaker thinks of the café as an exact place, whereas ‘I am waiting for you in the café’ emphasises that the speaker is inside the place in question.
Time-wise, ‘at’ describes specific moments, such as certain times of day or the present moment.

Examples: ‘I always see my whole family at lunchtime’; ‘We bought our houses at the same time, what a coincidence!’
A peculiar case is that of ‘the weekend’: in British English, it is common to say ‘at the weekend’, yet American varieties tend to favour ‘on’. Up to you!

Ready for a test?

1. There is a lot of dust __ the floor. Time for a clean-up!

2. I always try to read a book __ bedtime.

3. I had a lot of fun visiting the Opera House __ Sydney.

4. I guess Paula is __ the restaurant right now. She must be busy.

5. What do you normally do __ the afternoons? I always take a nap!

6. __ Wednesdays, we wear pink.

7. There is always a lot of work __ noon. It’s the busiest time of day.

8. Mark must be __ the toilet. There’s no signal there.

Answers:

1. on ·  2. at · 3. in · 4. at · 5. in · 6. on · 7. at · 8. in

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