Grammar 101: How to Use IN, ON, and AT

Tue, 01 Sep 2020

During a conversation with an English speaker, there are three little words that often come up: IN, ON, and AT. These three words are what we call by a preposition and we use it to connect the people, objects, time, and locations of a sentence. Prepositions are usually short words and located directly in front of the noun that is being referred to.


While prepositions such as behind, over, in front of, and besides are easy to master, the same case doesn’t apply to IN, ON, and AT. For an English course starter like you, these three words can be pretty challenging to use.


Luckily, LingoTalk is here to help you. Here are some tips on how to use IN, ON, and AT correctly, along with the examples to get you going.


Let’s find out!


The Rule of Thumb

When should we use IN? When should we use ON? And when should we use AT?


The first and most apparent differentiator of IN, ON, and AT is its degree of specificity. For describing place and time, those three words go from general to specific, with IN being the most general and AT most specific.


IN, ON, and AT as a Preposition of Time

Using the same rules, let’s look at how English speakers use IN, ON, and AT to refer time. Generally, we use IN to refer to a longer period of time, for example, years, decades, months, or centuries. We don’t say “on 2018”. Instead, we say “in 2018” or “in the 20th century”.


IN examples:

  • In January
  • In the spring
  • In 2009
  • In the evening


Moving on to ON. We use ON to refer to a shorter period of time such as dates, holidays, and day. For instance “on Monday” or “on Christmas”. While it is more specific than IN, IN only refers to the day while excluding a specific period of time.


ON examples:

  • On Monday
  • On February 14th
  • On the first day
  • On the 3rd
  • On Sunday


AT acts as the most specific preposition amongst the three. We use AT to refer time and holidays without the days. When you use AT, you’ll hear “at midnight”, “at Christmas” or “at noon”.


AT examples:

  • At midnight
  • At half-past three
  • At 06:00
  • At dawn
  • At evening


IN, ON, and AT as a Preposition of Place

The same rule of thumb also applies when it comes to the preposition of place. We use IN for a larger or most general place, whereas AT for the most specific place.


We use IN to refer to neighborhoods, cities, and countries. Hence, the next time you want to say that you’re “in California”, don’t get the preposition mixed up with AT and ON. You can also use IN to talk about neighborhoods around you. For example, “for tasty food at cheap price, you can find it in Chinatown.”


IN examples:

  • In Tokyo
  • In the kitchen
  • In a park
  • In a building
  • In my friend’s house


Furthermore, we use ON to talk about more specific spots such as street names and islands. You may recognize the White House which is located ON the Pennsylvania Avenue IN Washington, D.C. However, you can also use ON to refer to something that’s located on a surface.


ON examples:

  • On the Independence street
  • On the wall
  • On Fiji
  • On the cover
  • On Bali


The most specific locations and addresses belong to AT. You may use AT for exact intersections or addresses, for instance, “come to my office AT 180 New York Avenue.” To be exact, it’s AT the corner of California and 4th Street.”


AT examples:

  • At the crossroad
  • At 180 New York Avenue
  • At the end of the road
  • At the intersection of New York and California Avenue
  • At the front of the supermarket


Vehicles and Prepositions


Nevertheless, just like any English words and grammar, there are always exceptions from the rule. Prepositions get challenging when we use it to refer to transportations.


When it comes to vehicles, we use ON for specific transportations where we can stand or walk on it. For example, “we go on a ferry”, “on a ship”, “on a bicycle”, or “on foot”.


Whereas for IN, we use it to refer to specific transportations where we can sit inside, such as “in a car”, “in a helicopter”, or “in a taxi”.


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