Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

Discussion Details

Title: Prepositions: 'In' versus 'At'
Submitter: LINGUIST Editors
Description: We've recently had some interesting discussions around the LINGUIST List
office regarding the prepositions 'in' and 'at', and the distinction
between them when used to explain where a particular entity is located. For
non-native English speakers, this distinction is not always apparent, and
we, the LINGUIST Editors, soon realized that there isn't necessarily an
'easy' way to explain the differences in using 'in' versus 'at'.

For example, our native speaker instinct tells us (and please disagree if
it doesn't speak to you in the same way) that an English speaker is more
likely to use 'in' when describing their location in a large area, such as
'I'm in Ohio', 'He's in Ypsi', 'We're in Europe'. When you talk about a
specific location, landmark, or smaller area, you'll often switch to using
'at', as in 'I'm at home', 'She's at the zoo', 'They're at the Parthenon'.

We attempted to illustrate the issue by creating a Venn diagram with
locations that typically use one preposition or the other (for example, you
probably wouldn't hear a native English speaker say 'I'm at Europe' or 'I'm
in work'). We soon found that many locations can be used with both
prepositions but, at times, convey different readings.

For instance, saying 'I'm in school' means something different than 'I'm at
school.' With 'in,' this statement implies that the speaker is attending
school, whereas with 'at' it simply means that the speaker is physically on
location at the school.

In some circumstances, one preposition can be ambiguous while the other is
not. Consider the following examples:

(1) 'I'm at the library.'
(2) 'I'm in the library.'

Sentence (2) is unambiguous, there is no question that the speaker is
physically inside of the library. On the other hand, (1) can be quite
ambiguous. It could mean any of the following and more. The speaker could be:

- Inside the library;
- Just outside the library, standing at the front door;
- Walking up the path to the library;
- At the parking lot on their way to the library;
- etc.

What is your take on 'in' versus 'at'? What are appropriate situations in
which you would use 'in' or 'at'? When can you use both? How can ESL
students better learn the distinction? This informal discussion stems not
out of research but out of simple curiosity.
Date Posted: 01-Aug-2011
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
LL Issue: 22.3069
Posted: 01-Aug-2011

Search Again

Back to Discussions Index