Prepositions: Correct Usage of In and On

Look at how tiny these prepositions are: in and on. Yet, their stature doesn’t mean a thing. These two-letter words often trip English speakers up. Let’s take a look at prepositions and the correct usage of in and on. We’ll start with basic definitions and then explore several examples of each.

Modern workspace with journal and eyeglasses Modern workspace with journal and eyeglasses

Using "In"

"In" is defined as inside an area, moving from a point outside to a point inside.

  • We might say, “The dog is in her bed,” or, “She moved in with her boyfriend this weekend.” In each example, we have someone or something that’s moving from the outside, in. In this function, “in” typically denotes something is resting at a specific place. You could also say, “He lives in England.”
  • “In” is also used to note a specific occupation or function. So, we might say, “She works in the Department of Justice,” or, “He works in nanotechnology..”
  • “In” is also used to indicate a moment in time. You’ll see it used to indicate times of the day, months, years, and even seasons. For example, we might say, “I love to journal in the morning.” Or, gardeners will say, “The yellow roses will bloom in April.”

In Summary: “In” is used when you want to indicate a position within a limited space, but in a more general sense. It’s best suited when you want to say something is contained within something else or inside something else.

Using "On"

"On" is used to indicate position, usually indicating that something is on top of something else.

  • We might say, “My journal is on the desk.” In this function, “on” typically denotes proximity or position. Another example would be, “He sat on the stone wall.”
  • Here’s the fine point. “On” is used to indicate a position atop a surface or just above or outside a given area. So, you could also say, “Steven got a tattoo on his chest,” or, “She placed the star on the tree.”
  • “On” is also used to indicate more specific days and dates. So, we have “in” for select, general moments in time and “on” for particular days and dates. For example, “He left on the morning of May 18,” or, “We look forward to your gifts on Christmas Eve.”

In Summary: “On” is generally used when you want to indicate a position above or atop a space.

A Bit About "At"

"At" is another tricky preposition. It’s used to indicate what an action is referring to. Or, it’s used to show a condition or something that’s happening.

  • “She is pointing her finger at him.” In this example, her action (pointing) is in the direction of "him."
  • “He is looking at the sculpture.” In this example, his action (looking) is directed toward something (the sculpture).
  • You could also say “at” is generally used to describe a static position. It’s replaced with “in” or “on” when a more precise indication of location is needed. So, we might say, “He’s at work,” but then we’d also say, “He’s in the office,” when it’s time to be more precise.

The reason prepositions become tricky is because they’re all connectors. So, they have the same function, but they work in very different ways. Here's further discussion about at and how it is used.

In Summary: “At” is used when you want to escape specificities and indicate a general location. Alternatively, it’s also used to show a condition or something that’s happening, as in, “He’s looking at her.”


What About "Into" Too?

"Into" is defined as moving from the outside to the inside. Sound familiar? That’s the exact same definition as “in.” An example of “into” would be, “He walked into the ballroom.”

Even though their definition is the same, we’ve come to use the two words differently. Here’s how to differentiate between the two and make sure your grammar/usage is always on point. When you find yourself torn between “in” and “into,” ask yourself this: Is someone or something moving from one place to another? If so, the correct choice is “into.” So, we’d say, “He’s moving out of the old apartment and into his new home today.”

In Summary: “Into” is used when you want to indicate that someone or something is moving from one place to another, not just moving into a limited or specific space.

Preposition Practice

It’s safe to say prepositions are one of the least-liked parts of speech. They’re tricky and they come with a slew of rules. Since they’re so easily tangled, it can be frustrating when precision is key. Fear not. Just remember their root value: they’re connectors. Then, you can commit some of these nittier and grittier rules to memory over time.

Study on with this list of common prepositions. Then, see how familiar you are with these common rules for prepositions.