How to Use the prepositions IN AT ON (Graphics, Story, Videos)

I love to teach prepositions to my students here in Japan. Prepositions are very important parts of speech that help us to be understood clearly. They’re small words but they have a big impact on what we try to say. In this post I’ll teach you how to use three of the most common prepositions in English; in, at, and on.

INATON
PlaceInside a place or locationBeside or close toTouching the surface
“I live in Japan.”Jim is at the door.”“It’s on the floor.”
TimeUsed with amounts of timeUsed with the time of dayUsed for specific days and dates
“I’ll be home in 10 minutes.”“I’ll be home at 6:30.”“I’ll be home on Friday.”

If we understand prepositions we can sound more natural. Sounding more natural gives us more confidence. Improve confidence and improve communication. You’ll find lots of helpful infographics, examples, and videos to help you master these three little words.

Let’s follow a simple story about me after I lost my smartphone.

Where is my smartphone? Maybe the phone is IN my bedroom?

IN – English prepositions with PLACE 

IN = inside 

We use IN with rooms

  • Jessica is in the living room.
  • I’ve got lots of tools in my garage.

We use IN with cities, countries, areas, etc.

  • I was in Osaka last week on a business trip, but I’m sure I brought my phone back to Tokyo. I used it to call a taxi last night.
  • Trevor lived in Brazil for 3 years.
  • A: I like to hike in the mountains.
    B: Really? I prefer to hike in the woods.

We use IN with water

  • I think I put it in my locker at the gym before I changed and went in the pool.
  • There are big, beautiful, orange and white-colored fish in my friend’s koi pond.
  • When I was young my family had a cottage and I used to spend hours in the lake.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

“How about smaller locations like a knapsack or a purse? I can say IN my knapsack right?”

YES!

IN feels like inside, it’s the perfect preposition to use if something is IN a purse, bag, or pocket. 

  • Helen always keeps some mints IN her purse.
  • I put the receipt IN my pocket before we left the store.

If something is INSIDE another thing we use the preposition IN.

  • I always keep some extra money tucked IN my sock for sudden emergencies.

We use it with furniture too like a fridge (refrigerator) or a desk.

  • When you are done with the pen please put it back IN the drawer of the desk IN my office.
  • A: What’s that great smell coming from the kitchen?
    B: I have an apple pie IN the oven. It will be ready in about 20 minutes.
    (IN about 20 minutes = 20 minutes from now. Learn more about the preposition IN with TIME a little bit later in this post.)

I checked my bedroom and the phone is not there. Maybe I left my phone AT the reception desk of the gym? 

AT – English prepositions with place

We do an action [verb] AT a place

  • We waited at the bus stop.
  • Let’s meet at the train station.

AT can also mean = beside or close to

  • Someone is at my door.
  • There is a bird at my window.

We use IN with rooms but AT with buildings.

  • Trevor is at school/ at the office/ at the store/ at home.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

“What’s the difference between AT my house and AT home?”

These two sentences mean the same thing but we use them in different situations. Please look at the definitions below:

house (noun) a building for people to live in, usually for one family [countable] Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries house

home (noun) the house or flat that you live in, especially with your family [countable, uncountable] Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries home

Here is how I explain the difference between these two words to my students. The word house is just a building, but home has a more personal feeling. It’s the place where you live.

House is a countable noun so it will be used with an article (a, an, the) or a possessive noun (my, his, hers, John’s, etc.)

  • “I left my book AT John’s house.”

Home can be used without an article or a possessive noun.

  • “I left my book AT home.”

 A native speaker probably would not say  “I left my book at my house.” It’s not natural.

Left is the past tense of the verb to leave. A native speaker would probably use this pattern with the verb TO BE.

  • “The book IS at my house.” 
    Here we are describing the location of the book not where we left it. 

The phone is not at my house. Maybe I left my phone ON the bench in the change room?

ON – English prepositions with place

We use ON with surfaces
ON = surface or contact (touching)

  • I have pictures of my family on my desk at work.
  • The flowers are lovely! I think I’ll put them on the dining room table.
  • There is a big photo of a bodybuilder on the gym wall.
    (A picture, poster, shelf etc. is touching the wall.)
  • Let’s hang this painting on the north wall of the living room.
  • I just put a bookshelf on my bedroom wall. Now I have a place for my books, I don’t have to leave them on the floor.
  • Don’t eat that! It was on the floor.

We say on a page…

  • They just printed our school yearbooks. My photo is on page 52.

We say on a part of the body…

  • Watch out! There is a bee on your shoulder!
  • Theresa has a tattoo of a rose on her ankle.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

“Can we use both IN and ON with some body parts?”

Yes. Especially with the nose.

If something is touching the surface of your nose it is ON your nose.

If something went inside the holes of your nose it is IN your nose.

  • “There is a bug ON my nose! Get it off!”

*The opposite of ON is OFF.

  • “A bug just flew IN my nose! Get it out!”

*The opposite of IN is OUT.

Watch this quick video (1:58) to review the prepositions with PLACE examples and improve your English listening skills.

I finally found my phone! The phone was in my bag. I left my bag at my friend’s house on his dining room table. That’s a relief! 

Let’s learn how we use these prepositions with TIME now.

IN – English prepositions with time

We use the preposition in with longer amounts of time. You can think of in as inside, but inside an amount of time, not inside a place.

Andrea and Charlie are talking about a trip. (and gardening!)

A: Charlie, are you still thinking about going to Brazil in April? (Inside the month of April.)
C: I’m not sure. It’s a good time to leave work, but it’s the beginning of Spring. I want to grow beautiful flowers this year so I need to start planting and preparing my garden in Spring. (Inside the season)

A: I see. If you plant your seeds in April, you’ll have beautiful flowers in June.
C: That’s right. Hopefully, I’ll have another chance to go to Brazil in the future. (Inside the future)

We also use IN to mean – from now

  • I’ll be ready in 10 minutes. (10 minutes from now)
  • Trent ordered a new TV. It will be delivered in 3 days. (3 days from now)
  • Dave is going to visit Canada in 2 months. (2 months from now)

AT – English prepositions with time

We use AT for the time of day

Alex and Christy are making plans to meet.
It’s now 9:00 am

C: Shall we meet after work at 6:00?
A: Actually I’d like to go home right after work, I’m really tired today. I woke up at sunrise this morning.
C: Wow! That’s early, why don’t we meet at lunchtime? Maybe 12:30?
A: That sounds great! See you at 12:30.

ON – English prepositions with time

We use ON for specific days and dates

Adam and Carrie are talking about their weekend.

A: What did you do on Saturday Carrie?
C: I went camping in the mountains! It was beautiful. I had a campfire, watched the stars, slept in a tent and I came home on Sunday.

A: That sounds great. I love camping, my friend and I are going to go camping at Reed Lake next month on the 18th. 
C: My Dad used to take me camping to Reed Lake every year on my birthday.

Grammar point – We verb at a place (action word)

  • Go camping at Reed Lake.

BUT we take someone/something to a place

My Dad took me to Reed Lake every summer.

Don’t forget! We say: 

in the morning
in the afternoon
in the evening

  • The best time to exercise is in the morning.
  • I’m busy Thursday, but I have some free time on Friday in the afternoon.
  • I like to take a walk after dinner. The air is much cooler in the evening.

BUT we say:

at night

  • You should walk with a friend. It’s not safe to walk alone at night.

IN/AT with morning, afternoon, evening, and night. image

Watch another quick video (1:58) on prepositions with TIME to review some examples and improve your English listening skills.

Improve your understanding of English prepositions with these other great posts

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