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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: We actually took a stab at a version of this question here on Ask-a-Linguist back in

At the time, I thought the rules were something like:

If the vehicle is one that you literally sit on top of, you have to use 'on'
(motorcycle, bicycle, horse...)

If the vehicle literally or metaphoricallly 'contains' you, and there isn't enough
space for people to walk around inside, you use 'in' for people who are riding
inside it (car, truck, tank?, canoe, kayak...)

If the vehicle contains you and there is enough space inside for people to stand
up and walk around, you typically use 'on' (bus, plane, ocean liner...)

Your mileage may vary, of course, but that's how it seems to work for me. The
size differences are clearest for me with boats; I definitely get in a canoe (and
not on), but I can get on a boat as long as it's big enough for me to stroll around
on the decks. Of course, you can use 'on' with the smaller vehicles as long as
you're planning to get on top of them; 'get on the car' means 'climb up onto the

I hope this is useful--

Norvin Richards
Reply From: Norvin Richards      click here to access email
Date: 19-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    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (18-Feb-2013)
  4. Re: Prepositions preceding modes of transportation    John M. Lawler     (18-Feb-2013)

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