Friday, August 10, 2007

Are you in, on, at, or what?

These three little words can be very confusing: "in," "on," and "at." I often confuse the proper way of using all three words. The rules, however, are simple enough:

"At" refers to a particular point in space. So, "I'm waiting at the entrance" and "He's at the computer."

"On" refers to a surface: "The cat jumped on the counter," "She placed her phone on the sofa."

"In" refers to being surrounded: "That was in my bag," "She is in the theater."

One of my favorite references, "Oxford Guide to English Grammar" by John Eastwood, simplifies the differences between the three by saying that "at" is one-dimensional (a point in space), "on" is two-dimensional (a surface), and "in" is three-dimensional (surrounding something). But this is more complicated that it sounds. It is, after all, correct to say both "She's at the university" and "She's in the university." In both cases, "university" can at once surround a person as well as be a point in space.

Eastwood says that "at the university" can mean "doing something"-- "She's at the university giving a speech." "In the university" can mean "inside a building"-- "She's in the university laboratory."

Sometimes, the simplest things can be the most confusing.

Thanks to my young friend, Justin, who is showing his appreciation for this blog by determinedly using all the words I teach in a monster sentence. It's also great how, through this blog, I heard from an old friend, "Shiro," who pointed out that "for a while" is a direct translation of the Tagalog expression, "sandali lang." I also saw Alex's post: he is someone I've never met! Thank you, Alex, for the kind words. I hope I can keep this blog interesting for you.

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