Things to keep in mind about prepositions  IN, ON, AT, BY

These four two-letter words can be very confusing at times when speaking English, but not when listening to an English conversation. It is important to pay attention to these four words when reading content in English like this one, or watching TV. Being able to correctly choose when to use each one will help you sound more like a fluent and natural English speaker. The following are basic rules, but it is important to pay attention to native English speakers to pick up on the exceptions to these rules.  Finally, keep in mind location, time, direction, and even mode of transportation as they relate to IN, AT, ON, and BY prepositions. Let’s improve your English grammar and speaking fluency together!

Quick examples:

  1. I am at the park, not I am in the park 
  2. She is on Market Street, not she is at Market street
  3. I am on the metro, not I am in the metro 
  4. I work at Stables in Nashville on 4th street. 
  5. I have an appointment at the dentist on Monday at 10am
  6. Meet me by the station on 3rd street at 4pm

When to use ON, AT, BY, IN

  • ON: mainly refers to flat surfaces
    • Transportation: we use ON when talking about large modes of transportation such as planes, trains, buses that fit more than one person.
      • I am on a plane
      • they are on a bus
      • we are on the metro 
    • Location: flat open surfaces including rivers, oceans and lakes. Not surrounded by walls 
      • We are on the lake, I’ll be out on the lake 
      • The pen is on the table  
    • Time: applies to the days of the week or words with the day in the word 
      • I have an appointment on Monday 
      • I’m going to FL on my birthday 
      • We are having dinner on Christmas day
  • AT: refers to a specific location and time
    • Location: refers go an exact and specific location of a person or object
      • meet me at the supermarket 
      • I am at my house
      • The car is at home
    • It also applies to events
      • Helen is at the party or at the concert.
    • Time: specific time and minute
      • We have a meeting at 10:30 am 
      • I have a Doctor’s appointment at 11:00 am
  • BY: interchangeable with nearby or close to
    • Transportation: how you get somewhere
      • I went to school by bus 
      • She got to work by car 
    • Location: in close proximity to something else. The same as saying nearby, close to 
      • I am by the coffee shop
      • She is by the supermarket 
    • Time: end of a time, limit of time. 
      • I need the report by the end of the week 
  • IN: the object or person must be surrounded by walls or borders
    • Transportation: small vehicles for personal use 
      • I am in the car 
      • I am in a cab/taxi/ uber 
    • Location: places that can surround a person or an object 
      • I am swimming in the pool
      •  there’s sugar in my coffee
      • The pen is in the bag
    • Time: longer periods of time such as months and years
      • I am going on vacation in October 
      • I was born in 1993 
    • It may get complicated when the edges of the areas are more open such as cities or countries
      • I was born in Colombia, 
      • My house is in Nashville  
    • It also applies when you are surrounded by people 
      • Helen is in the soccer team
    • There are some exceptions though when people are elected for certain positions 
      • She is on the committee
      • They are on the board

Let’s recap!

ON is used when referring to flat surfaces or large modes of transportation. AT is used when talking about a specific location and time. BY is used when being in proximity to something or when there is a deadline of time or day. IN is used when the object or person is being surrounded by a border, walls, even people. Pay attention to the exceptions when listening to native speakers to improve your fluency!

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