English Preposition Lesson: At vs. In For Location

Michael Grammar 14 Comments

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Hi English Language fans! It was a bit chilly this morning in NYC. Well, today I have a special English lesson for you that I think is really going to help you learn the difference between the prepositions at & in when talking about location. I know so many people have trouble with these two words, but if you can remember a few basic rules and patterns, you’ll have it down pat!

We often use both at & in to talk about position or location. Generally the meaning is the same. Both of these sentences tell us Jack’s location:

  • Jack is at his office.
  • Jack is in his office.

So, when we speak in a general way, we can use either at or in to describe the location.

However, both at & in have some specific uses and meanings when you need to be less general and more specific.

We use at when we want to refer to one specific point. This could be a point in time, or a physical point in a place. Often this physical point is an object:

  • Jack is at his desk. His desk is the specific point or object of Jack’s location
  • I waited at the bus stop for twenty minutes.
  • Grandma is knitting at the window.
  • The teacher is at the whiteboard.

Of course, I am sure you know we use at to indicate an exact point in time:

  • Let’s meet at 9:00.

We also use at to talk about one specific point during a trip.

  • This train will make stops at Tokyo, Ueno, Omiya, and Sendai.
  • I stopped off at the coffee shop on the way to my office.
  • When I went from NYC to Sao Paolo, I stopped at Miami to change planes.

We also use at when we talk about a store or a building. At gives us the nuance about what usually happens in that store or building. Notice the verb is not the be verb but a verb that also describes the usual action in the location

  • I bought this shirt on sale at the department store. People usually shop at a department store.
  • Jack had a coffee at a nice café on Madison Ave. People usually have coffee at a café.
  • Lets study at the library after class. People usually study at a library.

I think that when we don’t care about the action, but just want to describe the location using the be verb we often use in:

  • I was in the department store yesterday.
  • Jack is in a café on Madison Ave.
  • We have been in the library for three hours. Let’s go home.

We also have some set phrases with in & at that have a specific meaning:

  • Jack is in the hospital. He is a patient there.
  • The bank robber is finally in jail. He is incarcerated.
  • Jane was in bed until noon. She was sleeping or relaxing.
  • I was at work all night last night. I was working in my office.
  • I plan to stay at home today. I won’t go out today.
  • Jenny is at college, so her sister has their bedroom to herself. Jenny is living in her college dormitory.
  • The cruise includes 6 nights at sea. Traveling on the ocean.

We also use at to talk about events:

  • I had a great time at the concert last night.
  • I met Jack at the party last weekend.
  • Cathy made a great presentation at the meeting yesterday.

We use in when we talk about a town, a city, or country:

  • Jane lives in Hartsdale, a suburb of New York City.
  • I live in New York.
  • New York City is the largest city in the USA.

We use at before a school or company:

  • I work at Happy English.
  • Jack got his MBA at Harvard.
  • Nick works at Kintetsu World Express.

Well, there you have it! I think I have covered the basic differences between at & in. If I’ve missed something, or of you have a question, feel free to leave a comment. In the meantime, how about using in or at (or both) in a sentence that is true for you. Use the comment box below.

If you know anyone who might be interested in this English language point, why not help them out! Just share this lesson with them. Thanks for studying today!

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