Preposition: At Vs. In from Happy English NY

Michael Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Let’s continue the discussion of prepositions with a look at in and at. These two prepositions both indicate location, but their use is different.

Talking about street addresses, towns, and areas
At is used for a specific address:

  • The Empire State Building is at 500 Fifth Ave, New York, NY.

In is used for the names of cities & towns, states, countries & continents:

  • I live in Manhattan. Manhattan is in New York, New York is in the USA, the USA is in North America.

Contrasting at and in
We use at when we talk about a non-specific general location

  • I met her at the bank ← It is not clear, and not important what part of the bank (in front, inside, etc) we met.

In contrast, we use in we are indicating both the location and the fact that there is a purpose for being there or some action taking place there.

  • I met her in the bank ← It is very clear that the meeting took place inside the bank.

While at indicates a general location and does not imply anything more than a general location, in indicates a more specific location and implies some activity or happening in that location. Compare the following:

  • I was at school today (at the general location)
  • I was in school today (inside the building, perhaps taking a class, studying, etc…)
  • He’s at the library (at the general location)
  • He’s in the library (inside the building, perhaps doing research, searching for a book, etc…)
  • I was at the post office (at the general location)
  • I was in the post office (inside the building, perhaps sending a package, buying stamps, etc…)

Fixed expressions with at
At work and at home are fixed expressions:

  • I was at home all day yesterday. Not I was in home yesterday.
  • I think Joe is at work today. Not I think Joe is in work today.

Other fixed expressions are at his/her desk, at the sink, at the window, at the door:

When you do not need to be specific, at or in can be used

A: Where were you today?
B: I was in the library / I was at the library (either is ok when you don’t need to be specific)

A: Where is George?
B: He’s in school / He’s at school (either is ok when you don’t need to be specific)

The Hospital
For hospital, note the difference between in and at:

  • John is in the hospital (he is a patient there, perhaps sick or being treated for something)
  • John is at the hospital (he is inside the building, perhaps visiting someone, or getting information)

School and Church
For school and church, the is used to indicate being inside the location. No article indicates a more specific location and implies some activity or happening in that location

  • I was in school today. (inside the building, perhaps taking a class, studying, etc.)
  • I was in the school today (simply inside the building)
  • I was in church this morning (inside the building, praying, listening to a sermon, etc.)
  • I was in the church this morning (simply inside the building)

Compare the following:
A: Where’s Dad?
B: He’s in church (attending services)

A: Where’s Dad?
B: He’s in the church (perhaps dropping something off, looking for a lost hat, etc)

Ok, so I realize there are lots of rules, and of course exceptions to those rules when it comes to prepositions. Hang in there! I am sure you will get it. I hope you are finding this week’s lessons helpful. if you need me I’ll be at my desk in my office! Where will you be?

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