Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2017 Fund Drive.

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation
Question: I'm sure this is a useless question, but it has been bothering me since it occurred to me. Why is it we travel ''on'' a bus, ''on'' a train, ''on'' a boat, ''on'' a plane, but ''in'' a car? As we also travel ''in'' cabs and police cruisers, it begs to reason that it has less to do with ownership of the vehicle and more to do with the size of the vehicle. Nevertheless, the original models for automobiles weren't enclosed, to it seems likely that the usage would have favored ''on,'' since the riders were not ''in'' anything. The best reason I can think of is that the usage transferred from the horse-drawn carriage, which some of us still ride ''in'' today, but that only cycles the question further back. Bearing in mind that the modes of transportation at that point would have been the boat, the carriage, forms of animal (primarily horse), and later on the train, it makes sense to be ''on'' a boat and ''on'' a horse, but ''in'' a carriage. But why ''on'' a train? This, however, pushes the question forward yet again -- why, then, do we not ride ''in'' a plane or ''in'' a bus?
Reply: I must agree with Prof. Pyatt's final clause: prepositions aren't 100% consistent. Is one thing, for example, different to, from, or than another? Prepositions represent a fairly late development in the English language. English now has, depending on what you count, in the neighborhood of a hundred prepositions. Old English had fewer than a dozen. The use of prepositions and the number of them mushroomed in Early Modern English, that is, after 1500, and that rapid expansion of a category was at the expense of consistency. The difficulty and irregularity of the grammar of English prepositions is the bane of learners of English as a second or foreign language. Attempts to put order to the category are, as Prof. Pyatt notes, exception-prone.
Reply From: Herbert Frederic Stahlke      click here to access email
Date: 18-Feb-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (18-Feb-2013)
  2. Re: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (20-Feb-2013)
  3. Re: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation    Norvin Richards     (19-Feb-2013)
  4. Re: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation    John M. Lawler     (18-Feb-2013)

Back to Most Recent Questions