First, look at a picture:
Listen to three sentences. Which one fits the picture?
- I’m driving to the airport.
- I’m at the airport.
- I’m in the airport.
Which sentence fits?
The first one: I’m driving to the airport.
1. How to Use To
Why do we say I’m driving to the airport and not I’m driving in the airport or I’m driving at the airport?
It’s because we use to to express movement.
A good way to understand English prepositions is to look at the words that go before and after them.
Which words go before and after the preposition to?
For example, which verb comes before to in our sample sentence?
The verb drive. Drive is a verb of movement.
To expresses movement, so before the preposition to, we need a verb that expresses movement.
So, let’s think: can you think of other verbs which express movement?
Go is an obvious example.
Maybe you also thought of verbs like run, walk or come.
- He ran to end of the road.
- We walk to school every day.
- Do you want to come to my house for dinner?
These verbs are all about people and how they move.
You can also move things.
- He sent a letter to France.
Can you think of any more verbs related to moving things?
Good examples are take or move, but there are many more.
- I took my bike to the shop to get it repaired.
- We moved the sofa to the other side of the room.
I have another tip for you. You can also use to after nouns that express movement.
What do I mean by that?
What’s the missing word in this sentence?
- I’m planning a ________ to China this summer.
Do you know?
The missing word is trip.
- I’m planning a trip to China this summer.
Can you think of any other nouns like trip, where you can use the preposition to after the noun?
You can also use to after nouns like holiday, invitation or way.
- We went on holiday to Egypt last year.
- They sent us an invitation to their housewarming party.
- Do you know the way to the botanical gardens?
There is an exception to these rules. Do you know what it is? It’s with a very common word, which I’m sure you all know.
The place home does not use the preposition to.
You cannot say:
The correct sentence is:
Also, don’t use to with the pronouns here or there.
- Bring it to here.
- Let’s go to there and see what we can find.
So, now you know how to use to: use to after verbs or nouns which express movement.
So, what about in?
2. How to Use In
How would you describe this picture? There’s a woman. Where is she?
You can say:
Why do you use the preposition in?
You use in to describe being surrounded by walls or other things.
Let’s look at some more examples:
- The Empire State Building is in New York.
- They stayed in a small town in the south of England.
- My cousin lives in China.
Remember, to understand English prepositions, you should look at the words before and after the preposition.
Let’s look at the verbs you can use before in. You can see the verbs be, stay and live.
Do these verbs express movement?
No, they describe states, without movement.
Can you think of other examples of verbs which don’t express movement?
There are many. You could use stand, sleep or study. For example:
- Why’s he standing in the corner like that?
- She was sleeping in the car on the way here.
- Do you prefer to study in your room or in the library?
Now let’s look at the nouns.
All of these nouns: New York, China, a small town, the corner, the car, your room, the library—what connects them?
They’re all places which surround you.
You use the preposition in for cities, countries and buildings which you are inside.
These are direct, physical ways to use in. Can you think of other things which you can use after in?
You can also use in in more indirect ways. For example:
- Is that you in the picture?
- She works in the finance department.
- I read about it in the newspaper.
So, use in with verbs which don’t express movement, like be, stay or live.
And, use in with places or things which surround you.
Learn more about job departments and titles with this Oxford Online English lesson: Talking About Your Job.
So, what about at?
3. How To Use At
Look at some examples with the preposition at:
- She wasn’t at the bus stop when the bus came.
- I’m waiting for you at the end of the road.
- We’ll meet you at the subway exit.
Which verbs can we use with at? We have be, wait and meet.
These verbs do not express movement.
This sounds very similar to in. So, what’s the difference?
Let’s look at the words after the preposition. You have the bus stop, the end of the road, and the subway exit.
Why at the bus stop? Why not in the bus stop?
You use at for bus stop because you’re not surrounded by it.
Think about it: the bus stop could just be a pole by the road with a sign on it.
In this case, you can’t be in the bus stop, right? There’s nothing to be inside.
Similarly, you say at the end of the road or at the subway exit because they’re specific places, but you’re not surrounded by anything.
So, then why do we say things like:
- She’s studying microbiology at university.
- I saw it at the cinema.
- We can get something to eat at the supermarket.
Why do we say at the cinema and not in the cinema? After all, the cinema is a place which surrounds you.
It’s because you use at to talk about why you go to a particular place.
If you say:
- She’s studying microbiology at university.
You use the preposition at because you talk about what she’s doing at university, and why she’s there. She’s there because she’s a student.
Similarly, if you say:
What are you talking about? What is ‘it’?
I hope it’s obvious that ‘it’ is a film! You say at the cinema because you’re going to the cinema to watch a film.
You’re not focusing on the place as a place; you’re focusing on why you go there.
Let’s look at another, slightly different example:
- Did you meet Anne at the party?
Okay, what about party? That’s not exactly a physical location. So, why do you use at?
You can also use at for events.
- He met his wife at a speed metal concert.
- There were so many people at the wedding.
So, like in, you use at to describe where something is.
Unlike in, use at to talk about specific places where you’re not surrounded by anything.
You can also use at when you want to focus on why you go to a place, rather than focusing on the place as a place.
Finally, you can use at for events.
So now we’ve looked at each preposition individually, let’s compare and contrast these three English prepositions.
4. What’s the Difference Between To, In and At?
Okay, so can you remember the difference between the prepositions to, in and at in English?
To expresses movement. That means you need a verb which expresses movement before to, and a place after to.
At and in both express where something is. You can’t generally use them with verbs which express movement.
There are some places which can only be used with one preposition. For example:
- Are you still in bed?
- There’s still some sauce in the fridge.
- He sat at the end of the table.
- What did you do at work today?
In these cases, you can’t choose. There’s only one possibility.
However, sometimes, you can use either preposition at or in with no difference in meaning:
- I can’t talk right now. I’m in a meeting.
- I can’t talk right now. I’m at a meeting.
Then, sometimes both prepositions at and in are possible, but with slightly different meanings.
- I’m at the bank.
- I’m in the bank.
Can you tell the difference?
Now, these two sentences could have the same meaning. The two prepositions aren’t necessarily different.
However, they could be different. I’m in the bank focuses on the bank as a physical place. Maybe it started raining really hard, and you just ran into the bank so you wouldn’t get wet.
I’m at the bank focuses on the bank as a bank. If you say I’m at the bank, you have some banking to do there.
Let’s see one more example like this:
- We were at Mike’s apartment last night.
- We were in Mike’s apartment last night.
Can you tell the difference this time?
This time, the sentences are definitely different, and you probably wouldn’t use one of the prepositions!
We were at Mike’s apartment last night focuses on why you were there. Why were you there? You were visiting Mike, probably. Maybe you went over to Mike’s for dinner, or something like that.
We were in Mike’s apartment last night focuses on his apartment as a place. This suggests that you were in the apartment, but Mike wasn’t. So, what were you doing there?
This is why you probably wouldn’t say in Mike’s apartment.
I hope some of these rules have helped you understand the difference between these English prepositions.
I strongly recommend that when you are learning vocabulary, including prepositions, don’t just learn one word but learn the words on either side too.
For example, if you want to learn the word bus stop, learn a full phrase with a preposition, like wait at the bus stop. That way it’s easier to remember the correct preposition.
Thanks for watching!