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

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: As my colleagues have pointed out, English prepositions are not consistent in their uses. However, there are very common and well-known basic locative senses for several of the prepositions you mention. These senses are discussed and explicated, along with much else, in Charles Fillmore's Santa Cruz Deixis Lectures, particularly Lecture 2, "Space". From that lecture: "In particular, the preposition at is said to ascribe no particular dimensionality to the referent of its assiciated noun, the preposition on is said to ascribe to the referent of its head noun the property of being a line or a surface, and the preposition in is said to ascribe to the referent of its head noun the notion of a bounded two dimensional or three-dimensional space. "Frequently the same noun has different interpretations depending on what dimensionality property is assigned it by the accompanying preposition [e.g.]   "at the corner, which means near or in contact with the intersection or meeting of two straight lines -- or two streets   "on the corner, which locates something as being in contact with a particular part of the surface of some angular two-dimensional figure or three-dimensional object; while   "in the corner is an expression in which the noun corner is used to indicate a portion of a three-dimensional space -- in particular, a part of the interior of say, a room." As far as vehicles are concerned, one is on a raft or a road or a scheduled conveyance (rafts, roads, and schedules are all 2-dimensional), and on a horse as well, because the back of a horse is 2-dimensional. One is, however, in a boat or a canoe or an auto or a bus or a railway car (basically, any container, because containers are 3-dimensional). For scheduled conveyances, in the bus means physically inside the conveyance, while on the bus means scheduled as a passenger and/or physically present as well. There's lots more, but you can get it in the links.
Reply From: John M. Lawler      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    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (18-Feb-2013)

Back to Most Recent Questions