In vs. On: What’s the Difference?
Whether you are learning the English language or are a native speaker trying to boost your English grammar skills, using prepositions properly can be a challenge to master. Even native English speakers, as well as experienced writers, may find themselves misusing a preposition if they aren’t paying careful attention.
Prepositions are particularly important when it comes to refining your use of English and communicating your ideas clearly and effectively. For starters, using prepositions properly can also help improve your conversational English skills and ensure your listener understands you well.
Last Updated June 2020
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Two prepositions all English language students and native speakers keen on improving their speaking and writing skills should pay extra close attention to are “in” and “on.” The fact that both are among the first prepositions beginner-level English language students learn doesn’t necessarily mean they are the easiest to master.
Although both “in” and “on” are among the most common prepositions, native as well as non-native English speakers can find these prepositions a bit tricky.
What’s a preposition?
Before examining the difference between “in” and “on” and how to use these two prepositions, let’s take a step back and review exactly what prepositions are, and why it’s so important to understand how to use them correctly.
A preposition is a word that normally precedes a noun or a pronoun in a sentence, and that’s used to illustrate the noun or pronoun’s relationship to another word in the sentence. The word “preposition” came from the idea of a word being “positioned before,” or preceding, another word. Prepositions are used for reasons including:
- Giving the exact location of a person, place, or object.
- Sharing accurate information related to dates.
- Asking for directions and confirming information related to directions.
- Teaching someone how to complete a task.
Now let’s take a close look at two of the most commonly used — and sometimes confusing — prepositions in the English language, and learn more about how to use them properly when speaking and writing.
The preposition “on” is typically used when you want to denote the position for surfaces or a position just above or outside an area. Here are some examples:
- Put the book on the table.
- You can sit on the chair.
You might also use “on” when referring to a device or machine. When someone is “on the phone,” for example, this indicates a person is using the phone. Although this is an idiomatic phrase that makes little sense when taken literally, “on” is the correct preposition in this instance. Likewise, someone could also be “on the computer” or “on TV” in the event that someone you recognized was being seen on your TV screen. This wouldn’t mean that the person was sitting on the TV. Please note here that “in” would be an incorrect preposition here as well because no would be inside a TV or computer.
“On” could also be a reference to a part of the body. As an example, you may say a flung rock struck you “on the shoulder,” or that you saw someone slap someone “on the cheek.” When someone gets engaged, she wears a ring “on her finger.”
Another usage for “on” could involve the state of something. If a building burst into flames, you would describe it as being “on fire.” Likewise, if you’re out shopping for clothes and an item is half-off, you might say that item is “on sale.”
When using the preposition “in,” you’re typically talking about something contained within an object or something that is inside. Here are some examples:
- The money is in the drawer.
- She is still in the house.
“In” may also represent general times of the day, month, year, or season. For example:
- I will travel to London in February.
- He was born in 1950.
- We can visit the mountains in the spring when the weather is better.
“In” can work when referring to a location or place as well. If you’re traveling, you might be staying “in a motel,” or if you’re at home, your residence may be “in New York.” This location does not have to be a physical place, however. If someone shouts loudly “in your ear,” or if you are staring directly “in the eyes,” the preposition “in” works best.
It’s also correct to use “in” when discussing shape, color, or size. When looking at a painting at a museum, you might say that it was done mostly “in yellow.” Perhaps a group of spectators gathered around an unusual event and formed a ring around the perimeter. This would be the spectators gathering “in a circle.” When it comes to size, think of clothing. If you’re describing whether a shirt is available “in large or medium,” you’ll need to rely on the in preposition.
Lastly, “in” could also be used to describe a belief, opinion, or interest. For instance, you might “believe in donating to charities” on a regular basis or have no interest “in politics.”
“In” and “on” as prepositions of time and place
It’s important to understand that “in” and “on” are both prepositions of time.
He was born on New Year’s Eve.
She lived in Paris in the 1990s.
In the future, we will be driving cars that can fly.
Let’s meet on Friday morning.
Both “in” and “on” are also prepositions of place:
Please meet me on the corner of Second Street and Jones Avenue at 5 p.m.
Can you meet me in the garden at 2 p.m.?
We will see you in the morning.
Leave the package on the table.
Here are more sentences that show how to use these prepositions properly. Note again that “on” is a preposition of both time and place. “In,” on the other hand, cannot be used when describing a specific date or regarding a specific street. For example, we would not say, “Her birthday is in July 4,” or, “He lives in First Street.”
Her birthday is in July.
Her birthday is on July 4.
He lives in Washington, D.C.
He lives on First Street in Washington, D.C.
Using “in” and “on” in phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs are created when you combine a base verb and particle, such as a preposition. Both “in” and “on” are common particles used in dozens of phrasal verbs. Here’s a sample list of common phrasal verbs that use “in”:
- Break in
- Bring in
- Check in
- Come in
- Drop in
- Fill in
- Give in
- Hand in
- Kick in
- Lead in
- Move in
- Take in
- Work in
Here are several phrasal verbs that use “on”:
- Bank on
- Build on
- Call on
- Check on
- Decide on
- Get on
- Go on
- Hold on
- Pass on
- Pick on
- Take on
- Sit on
- Work on
Here are some sample sentences using phrasal verbs:
- It was very easy to fit in at the office.
- They will move in on Friday.
- The teacher told the students to hand in their work on Wednesday.
- He keeps on calling the store but no one is picking up.
- Let me put on my shoes before stepping outside.
- You can count on me to finish the task.
It’s wise to review these lists and notice that many phrasal verbs that use “in” and “on” begin with the same base verb, such as:
- get in/get on
- put in/put on
- move in/move on
- take in/take on
Be aware that simply changing the preposition in the above sample list of phrasal verbs sometimes results in an entirely different meaning, and often, a little confusion. For example, if you tell someone to “Get in the car,” your listeners would understand they need to enter the vehicle. However, if you told them to “Get on the car,” they would most likely believe that you would like them to sit or stand on top of the vehicle. Therefore, be sure that you are using “in” and “on” correctly.
Now that you’ve read about how to properly use “in” and “on,” let’s test your knowledge. Take this short quiz.
- I will be at the meeting ___ 10 minutes.
The correct answer is a. in
- Mary was not ___ time for her appointment. She was 20 minutes late.
The correct answer is a. on
- The airplane is not __ the runway. It has not arrived yet.
The correct answer is a. on
- Can you please wait? He is still ___ on a call.
The correct answer is a. on.
- We are still ___ a meeting.
The correct answer is b. in.
- The mother watched her child get ___ the school bus.
The correct answer is a. on.
- She told her colleague she would pass___the message to their client.
The correct answer is b. on.
- Don’t forget to turn____ your essay before you leave class.
The correct answer is b. in.
One of the most important ways to improve your confidence in writing and speaking English is to be aware of common grammar mistakes. Understanding how to use prepositions such as “in” and “on” can take a little time and practice. There are many resources available that can help you continue practicing and expand your knowledge. Knowing how to use prepositions correctly is one of the best ways for non-native speakers to achieve native-like proficiency, and for native English speakers to improve their professional writing skills.
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