Does a pedestrian walk 'in' the road, or 'on' the road (both are correct, but which is right?)

Having a bit of a debate about this with some foreign colleagues of mine.

I've always used the phrase 'I'm walking in the road', they think that you should say 'I'm walking on the road'..

I'm not 100% sure why I use the word 'in', but there must be a reason for it!

So... which is right?

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The life I love is makin' music with my friends, and I can't wait to get in the road again. – RegDwigнt Jan 25 '13 at 11:02
Jokes aside, don't know about pedestrians, but there sure is a cow in the road! (Courtesy of tchrist in chat.) – RegDwigнt Jan 25 '13 at 11:10
Both are correct, but which is right?! I think we might have more serious problems here... – KeyBrd Basher Jan 25 '13 at 11:46
........Pardon? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 '13 at 12:08
If "both are correct", then both are right: That's elementary logic, my dear Watson. It just depends on where you are or what brand of English you speak. I'd say "There's a cow in the middle of the road" but "There's a cow on the road. Maybe the cow on the road is roadcow. Maybe the cow in the middle of the road is trotting around looking for a torero to terrorize. – user21497 Jan 25 '13 at 13:42

Without going into either analyses of why we use these particular prepositions or rigorously obtained and analysed statistics showing frequency of usage of given variants, examining a series of Google Ngrams shows fairly conclusively that

1. Choice of preposition is not prescribed.

2. Choice of preposition changes over time.

3. Choice of preposition within similar structures is idiosyncratic.

Look at Ngrams for in the X, on the X

where X =

road, street, lane, avenue, boulevard.

On the motorway and on the slip road are probably mandatory.

Admittedly, the Ngrams provide only ballpark figures: on the Crescent would only be used for a property or disturbance, say, referring not just to the road surface.

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As per comments, OP's concepts of "right/correct" aren't helpful here. Lots of prepositions are valid, depending on context. Here are some estimates from Google Books for he walked xxxx the road... down:18100 along:15400 up:8020 on:7700 across:5710 into:663 over:437 in:5

I immediately recognise a problem with those figures - as a native speaker, I know perfectly well that on, for example, isn't particularly common for that particular search text. But estimates in GB are skewed according to how often various subsections of the text occur anywhere in the corpus (walked on, on the, on the road, etc.). Here are the values after scrolling through to establish how many actual instances occur...

along:123(95)
down:104(109)
up:56(77)
across:59(70)
over:20(29)
into:25(7)
on:19(16)
in:5(3)

Obviously across, over are used in the context of getting from one side of the road to the other, and into for stepping off the sidewalk on to the tarmac traffic surface. In the context of using the road to get somewhere by foot, we normally use along, down, up.

I don't think it's worth differentiating between on, in. Almost every actual instance is equivalent with either, and usually would be better replaced by along, down, up.

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There's also the concept of "on the road" meaning "to be on the move" or "touring" - the Rolling Stones are on the road, ie on tour. However you wouldn't use this with "walking" as in OP's question. – Mynamite Jan 26 '13 at 0:52

Using the preposition in vis-à-vis " the road" normally describes an action that takes place in such a way that the normal progress of the thoroughfare might be blocked, or which calls attention to the act in progress.

Take, for example, the Beatles song "Why don't we do it in the road?" Here it means doing something (i.e., fornicating) right out there in front of everybody in such a way that people will stop and take notice. The Beatles were a British band, so that should put paid to any notion that in means something different in BrE.

To simply walk in the road means to put oneself in some danger from traffic.

He was walking in the road, officer. I didn't see him until it was too late.

Normally, to describe the simple act of using the road for pedestrian traffic alongside vehicular traffic, the prepositions up, down, or along are commonly used. They don't carry the connotation of mortal danger, though that may exist as well.

To walk on the road describes the relationship of one's feet to the road surface.

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In Yorkshire dialect "in the road" means in the way/blocking something - even if there is no road involved – mgb Jan 25 '13 at 15:45
@mgb I can vouch for that, and in Yorkshire you would say "Get out of the road" meaning "Get out of my way", regardless of where you were - no actual roads need to be involved. – Mynamite Jan 26 '13 at 0:46
@Mynamite I remember that usage from when I lived in the good old 'Black Country'. Note to non-brits, 'Black Country ' is explained here. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Country – chasly from UK Jul 21 at 18:55

I don't know what country you are in, as you have not specified it in your profile, and have not carried out a person by person check on the commentators. But, I suspect that "... in the road ..." is Yankee Speak and that the Queen's English would not allow of it. My suspicion may be unfounded :-)

I'm a New Zealander - we speak the Queen's English here, albeit in a somewhat mangled form. I do not think I have heard "in" used in that manner this century and probably not for half way back though last century either.

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I suspect that what you speak in New Zealand is New Zealand English. – Barrie England Jan 25 '13 at 13:17
I'm from England; I did however wonder if there was a possibility of the differing use being a regional thing - even within one country. – ripzay Jan 25 '13 at 14:27
@BarrieEngland - We SPEAK NZ English (ie pronunciation) but largely write British English - spelling and most usage. Much closer to Queen's English than President's English. All will be pleased to know that linguistic pronunciation drift is such that in time Queen's English will be spoken as we speak it now. I'm told. We are just the forerunners. || Would downvoter please explain reason. I really really do not mind downvotes on this sort of thing as long as they are logical - and I'd like to know why for future guidance. – Russell McMahon Jan 25 '13 at 22:52
'Queen's English' is an imprecise term, and not one used by serious linguists. Not my downvote, by the way. Downvoters seldom explain themselves. – Barrie England Jan 26 '13 at 7:58
@BarrieEngland - QE is a good enough term for we non-serious linguists. Few would not know what it meant with some precision in this context. We know what we speak and what those US fellows speak, and it's not the same (in part), whereas NZ English is very very largely indistinguishable from English English. We have some additional words due to different culturual inputs but no spellings are NZ specific or other than you'd find in England AFAIK. (I say England to be safe - I'll not guarantee our conformance with Welsh or scottish or Irish (either part) local practice). – Russell McMahon Jan 26 '13 at 8:47

We would normally say on. "In the road" suggests that you are talking about something in the material of the paving itself ("there are layers of concrete and tarmac in the road").

You might say "walking in the middle of the road" because the in places you between the two sides of the road, while on places you on top of the surface.

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"Percy stepped off the pavement to walk in the road and got run over." In is fine here. – Andrew Leach Jan 25 '13 at 11:13
Agreed, the in again places the pedestrian between the two sides. – Jon Hanna Jan 25 '13 at 11:34
"In the road" would only be recognised as having the 1st connotation Jon suggests if there was a prior clue (eg you were discussing construction techniques). More usually, the connotation of being 'in the way' or at least 'not where it "should" be' is more likely to be picked up - there's a settee (or, as tchrist/Reg say, cow) in the road. In would be more common here if one were walking there, avoiding still-icy pavements. On would be far more likely if one were discussing driving (keep on the road!) and mandatory if using a transparent metaphor (we've been on the road for six days now). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 25 '13 at 11:41
-1: nobody would normally infer "in the road" to imply the road making materials. – horatio Jan 25 '13 at 16:08
@horatio I don't mean that they'd infer that, I mean they'd hear something other than what was usual, assume it meant "on the road" and it'd sound wrong. Andrew and Edwin do both give good examples of where it would indeed be used, though. – Jon Hanna Jan 27 '13 at 9:48