In this lesson, you can learn how to use the prepositions ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’ to talk about where something is.
You’ll see different ways to use the prepositions ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘at’, with examples, different meanings, and common exceptions to the rules.
QUIZ: How to Use the Prepositions At, On and In
Test your knowledge of the vocabulary from this lesson with this quiz, which has 20 questions. For each question, you need to complete the gap(s) with the word ‘in’, ‘on’ or ‘at’. Most of the pictures are the ones you have seen in the lesson, and you can press ‘Hint’ for extra information to help you. Towards the end, there are new pictures and more gaps, so it gets more challenging as you go! You’ll see your score at the end. Good luck!
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Write the same word in both gaps.
Write the same word in both gaps.
Write the same word in both gaps.
This is also the same word twice.
Write the same word in both gaps this time.
This time, you need to write two different words.
You also need to write two different words here.
Again, you need two different words here.
There are two different words here. This example with ‘XX his house’ wasn’t included in the lesson, but it follows the rule for rooms and indoor spaces.
Now you have three gaps – two are the same word, but one is different.
Two of the gaps are the same word, while the other is different.
The two words are different again. For ‘XX the canal’ and other bodies of water like rivers and lakes, we think of them as surfaces.
These are two different words.
I’d love to travel across the States my motorbike, but I don’t know when. I’m work so much that my bike just sits the garage all the time.
This time you have three gaps – and three different answers!
Here, the two words are different. ‘XX the hook’ is the same as ‘XX the wall’, which you saw in the lesson, and the hall is an enclosed space.
Use ‘in’ for rooms and indoor spaces:
- in the living room
- in the apartment
- in my bedroom
Learn more about describing rooms in your home with this Oxford Online English lesson: Talking About Your Home.
Also, use ‘in’ for containers and enclosed spaces:
- in the bowl
- in the box
- in your pocket
Use ‘in’ for cities and countries:
- in Brazil
- in Paris
- in China
Also, use ‘in’ plus ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ or ‘west’:
- She lives in the south of Spain.
- Thailand is in south east Asia.
Learn more about using directions here: North, South, East and West Usage.
Use ‘in’ with establishments and businesses:
- in the shop
- in a restaurant
- in the supermarket
Sometimes, ‘at’ is also possible here, with a similar meaning. You’ll see the exact difference in part three, when we talk about using ‘at’.
You also say ‘in the centre’ or ‘in the middle’.
Use ‘in’ to talk about media:
- in a picture
- in this photograph
- in the film
In this lesson, learn how to describe pictures in English.
Use ‘in’ with cars and taxis. With most other transport, use ‘on’.
You also use ‘in’ to mean ‘surrounded by a material’:
- in the air
- in the sea
- in a thick sauce
You use ‘in’ to talk about many outdoor spaces. You can use ‘in’ for smaller, enclosed spaces. For example:
- in the park
- in a field
- in the garden
You can also use ‘in’ for larger, more open spaces:
- in the countryside
- in the sky
- in the world
Use ‘in’ to talk about things which are enclosed by part of your body. You can hold something in your hand. If you eat too much sugar, you’ll get toothache – a pain in your tooth.
There are some fixed phrases with ‘in’ that don’t follow a clear pattern. The most useful are:
- in bed
- in hospital
- in prison
Try to remember these three!
Finally, use ‘in’ to talk about things which are in a line. For example:
- We sat on the floor in a row.
- He arranged his tools in a neat line.
This also works if you arrange things into a shape. For example: ‘We set out the chairs in a circle.’
Now, you’ve seen all the common ways to use ‘in’ as a preposition of place.
Next in learning how to use ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’, what about ‘on’?
Use ‘on’ when something is on top of a surface:
- on the floor
- on the shelf
- on the kitchen counter
You can use ‘on’ with all kinds of surfaces – not just horizontal ones:
- She has a small spot on her nose.
- He spilled coffee on his shirt.
Use ‘on’ with furniture:
- on the bed
- on my desk
- on a chair
Use ‘on’ with print media:
- on page one
- on the menu
- on the map
You use ‘on’ with many geographical features, like islands, mountains, beaches and so on.
Use ‘on’ with transport which you sit on top of: bicycles, motorbikes and horses. You also use ‘on’ with public transport and boats. So, you say:
- on the plane
- on the bus
- on the boat
- on the ferry
Here’s one more example: ‘He’s sitting on the train and talking on the phone.’
Here, there’s another use of ‘on’. Do you know why you say ‘on the phone’?
Use ‘on’ to talk about using devices:
- on the phone
- on the internet
- on the Xbox
Finally, use ‘on’ with floors. You say:
on the second floor
on the fifth floor
…and so on.
Finally, let’s see how you can use ‘at’.
‘At’ is often used with public places. For example, you can say ‘at the cinema’ or ‘at the mall’.
‘At’ in this case can mean that you’re inside the place, or just near it.
Often, in these cases it’s possible to use ‘in’ or ‘at’ with no difference in meaning. You can say ‘I’m in the supermarket’ or ‘I’m at the supermarket’; both are correct and commonly used.
There might be a small difference. If you want to emphasise that you’re inside a building, then use ‘in’. If you’re outdoors, then use ‘at’.
‘At’ can mean ‘next to’. Let’s see a couple of examples:
- Someone’s at the door. Can you answer it?
- I was waiting at the bus stop for half an hour.
Use ‘at’ with events:
- at a meeting
- at their wedding
- at his birthday party
Use ‘at’ with people’s homes or offices. You can say:
- I was at Tim’s house yesterday.
- We’ll be at Sasha’s place for dinner tonight.
There are a few fixed phrases with ‘at’ that it’s better just to memorise. The most important ones are:
- at home
- at work
- at school
- at college
- at university
Note that you never use an article, like ‘a’ or ‘the’, in the phrases ‘at home’ and ‘at work’, and you generally don’t use an article when you say ‘at school’, ‘at college’ or ‘at university’.
Use ‘at’ to talk about position or time with phrases like:
- at the end of
- at the beginning of
- at the top of
- at the bottom of
For example: ‘Please read and follow the instructions at the top of the page.’
There’s one exception here: if you’re talking about two separate objects, then use ‘on top of’. For example: ‘My suitcase is on top of the wardrobe’.
Finally, use ‘at’ with house numbers, for example if you’re giving your address: ‘I live at 13 Crinklewell Crescent.’
Now, you know how to use ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’ as prepositions of place.
See you next time!