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I always see signs such as

Men at work


Children at play

I was wondering why we use "at" in this way. Is it just a formal way of saying Men Working / Children Playing?

Saying "At Lunch" seems sensible, yet even so I would only use this if I were out of the office etc, I wouldnt say "I'm at lunch" if I weren't changing location. If I were to say "I'm At Work" I would use this to inform someone I am at my workplace, not that I am actually working, and no one I know would say their children are "At Play" rather than "Playing".

At to me has always seemed more a word used with a location rather than an action.

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I'm afraid the answer might be well out of scope of this site. English hasn't invented using at this way. Many languages have identical (at) or very similar (in or on) constructions. – RegDwigнt Mar 28 '11 at 12:28
Maybe the point of the question is: Since you wouldn't say "Children at swim," what's so special about "work" and "play" that we can use this construction? – Peter Shor Mar 28 '11 at 13:01
I agree with @RegDwight that using at in that way is not a prerogative of English. Italian would use the equivalent of at in the same way (uomini al lavoro). – kiamlaluno Mar 28 '11 at 14:33
In Portuguese of Portugal, this method is generally preferred over the gerund-participle. You would say "Estou a nadar" (I'm at swim). In Brazil, the opposite is true. You would say "Estou nadando" (I'm swimming). It's just the way people say things. – JCooper Mar 28 '11 at 16:49
@Peter Shor Thanks thats one of the points I was wanting to make – user6352 Mar 29 '11 at 9:32
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The answer is "because that is how we use it". It sounds circular, but constructions like these are arbitrary. It seems that your main difficulty with this construction comes with the assumption you make in your last sentence:

At to me has always seemed more a word used with a location rather than an action.

Other uses of at that are not locative:

  • I am mad at you.
  • He was at peace with his decision.
  • The effort was amateur at best.
  • See you at 5 o'clock.

There are actually lots and lots of non-locative uses for at. From these examples, I am sure you can think of many more.

Maybe we should actually ask why at is ever used as a locative, since we have in, on, by and to? :)

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Is the descriptive term for this 'idiomatic'? – Mitch Mar 28 '11 at 14:04
@Mitch: No, an idiomatic usage is one that is particular to a certain phrase, or that cannot be broken down into its individual words (e.g. the meaning of "kick the bucket" cannot be understood by simply looking at the definitions of "kick" and "bucket"). This is a preposition with more than one meaning. – Kosmonaut Mar 28 '11 at 15:22

In my experience, 'at' can mean doing something. For example: 'Did you do your homework?' reply: 'Yes, I was at it all night.' Did you fix the car?' reply: 'Yes, I've been at it all morning.'meaning doing it all night / all morning. So your examples above mean 'Men doing work.' or 'Children doing the activity of play.'

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It's the same usage of 'at' that you see in the expression "Have at it". It's a way of indicating not a place but a state typically revolving around an activity. Normally when you indicate a state, you simply use a form of to be with that state (I'm sleepy for example), however whenever you cannot indicate your state in such a fashion for risking to have other meanings, you typically see at used (for example, you can't say "I'm work", but rather "I'm at work.").

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At is also used to denote the time spent by someone attending an educational institution, a workplace, their home, etc.

We all need to get involved in fighting crime whether it's at work, at home, or at school.

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In cases like this, I hear "at" as a synonym for "engaged in".

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