Pardon me for prepositioning…

Prepositions are probably the trickiest of all the grammar categories to master. It is easy to find proficient English speakers blanketed in diplomas and certificates still making mistakes regarding the usage of “at”, “in” or “on”.

But this should not discourage us. The first thing to remember is that prepositions in English refer mainly to space, time and relations between an action and its complement. This means we can use them to say where something is or happens, when it takes place and how an action affects the object that follows. The second thing to remember about them is that there are two classes that one must pay attention to: static and directional. Quite simply, a directional preposition indicates movement and a static preposition doesn’t. There are some prepositions that are very strict about being directional or static, some others are more flexible and can sometimes be found under both categories.

We are going to look at a couple of well-known prepositions, their practical guidelines and hopefully make sense of their application.

  1. AT

This is quite a dynamic little word. Let’s look at it in order. First, talking about space:

  • You can use it when you are in front of something:

There is someone at the door” (meaning that a person is waiting to be let in).

We sat at the table” (we were getting ready to share a meal).

  • A very common (and understandable) confusion has to do with when to use “in” and when to use “at”. For instance: when do you say “in the library” and when “at the library”? Well, I have a simple rule: think about an airport that you know. I think about this small, dark and unkempt airport where I landed many times. And then think about Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (where U2 made the videoclip for “Beautiful Day”): so big, so clean and all that. BUT at the end of the day both places have exactly the same function: airplanes land and take off with passengers boarding and unloading. They are airports regardless their specifications, they are common-function places. We can safely use the preposition “at” with places like these:

At the airport

At the school

At the hospital”

At the restaurant

There is no doubt you can think of some other such common-function places.

  • You should use “at” when you refer to events:

“At a party”

“At a funeral”

“At a meeting”

“At an orgy”

And now for time.

  • You can use “at” to talk about the time when an event will take place:

“The class is at 4:20”.

“The bus leaves at 9:00”.

“The movie begins at 8:30”.

  • You use it in certain collocations (collocations are groups of words that you use in the same order every time to convey one single idea):

At once”.

“At the moment” (not “in the moment”).

“At the weekend” (most common in British contexts).

2. IN

This is probably the most popular preposition in the whole lot. Before we go any further, let’s make sure we don’t imagine that “in” and “into” are interchangeable in every circumstance. “In” is a preposition that can be either directional or static, whereas “into” is almost invariably directional. That means that “into” refers to going from the outside in:

He walked into the room” (he was outside and came in).

She talked some sense into me” (I was not acting sensibly and she explained things in a way that made sense. Sense was out and after she talked to me, it was in).

Having cleared that out, let’s look at “in”. First, space.

  • You use “in” when you are in a closed space:

“In the room”

“In the building”

“In a nutshell” (this is an expression that means you are going to explain something in its most basic essence).

  • “In” is used in geographic references (towns, cities, countries, continents and so on). This explains why, when traveling, the correct verb + preposition to use at the end of your journey is “arrive in” (e.g.: we arrived in Asunción at 5:00 a.m.):

“In Bogotá”

“In Burkina Faso”

“In Mapiripán

And now, for time.

  • “In” is used to talk about something that happens within limits of a long period:

“I was born in 1985”.

“Birds travel south in the winter”.

“Burning witches was a popular hobby in the 14th Century”.

  • “In” is also used to tell how long it will be between now and the occurrence of an event:

“The class will begin in five minutes”.

“An asteroid will destroy Earth in 137 years”.

“I’ll be out in a minute!”


Do you have questions about a specific preposition? Leave a comment, then!


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