When English speakers talk about time and place, there
are three little words that often come up: in, on, and at. These common
words are prepositions that show a relationship between two words in a
Some prepositions are rather easy for English learners
to understand: behind, over, under, next to, etc…
But these little two-letter prepositions seem to
create confusion. Here are a few rules to help you understand when to use in,
on, and at in a sentence.
For describing time and place, the prepositions in,
on, and at go from general to specific.
Prepositions and Time
Let’s start by looking at how we talk about time.
English speakers use in to refer to a general, longer period of time,
such as months, years, decades, or centuries. For example, we say “in April,” “in 2015” or “in the 21st
Moving to shorter, more specific periods of time, we
use on to talk about particular days, dates, and holidays . You may
hear, “I went to work on Monday,” or “Let’s have a picnic on Memorial Day.”
For the most specific times, and for holidays without
the word “day,” we use at. That means you will hear, “Meet me at midnight,” or
“The flowers are in bloom at Easter time.
Parts of days (morning,
afternoon), Months (April, May),
day (Labor Day, Christmas day), Days of the week (Monday), Days of the month
(Fourth of July), Dates (April 15, my birthday).
" day" (Easter, New Year's) time (noon, midnight, 6 o'clock. 10
Prepositions and Place
When English speakers refer to a place, we use in
for the largest or most general places. You can say that “VOA is located in Washington, D.C.”
And “for the best food, try the restaurants in Chinatown.”
For more specific places, like certain streets, we use
the preposition on. You may know that President Obama lives on Pennsylvania
Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Finally, we get to the most specific places. For exact
addresses or intersections, we use the preposition at. If I invited you to visit us here at VOA, I
would say, “Come to my office at 330 Independence Avenue.” To be exact, it’s at the corner of
Independence and 3rd Street.”
Cities (Washington) Countries (The United States) Places with a Boundary
Streets, Avenues (Pennsylvania Ave.), Islands (Fiji),
Large vehicles (train, bus, ship) Surfaces
Addresses (1600 Pennsylvania
Ave.), Specific locations (home, the corner) points
In English, though, there is always an ‘exception to
the rule.’ When talking about transportation, things get a little hard to
understand. We use on for public vehicles like buses or trains, but also
for smaller ones like a bicycle. “I rode there on my bicycle.”
However, you ride in a car.
Still, it helps to know that English prepositions do
have some rules.
Following the “general to specific” rule should help
you most of the time.