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I come from a language that heavily uses in as a preposition, so I often overuse it in English. I am trying to differentiate between things that can be in a mountain vs. things that can only be on a mountain. Also, is there a difference between in and inside, because every time I make a mistake like that, people correct me and explain that what I've said basically means inside the mountain.

So, for example, can I say that a peak is in a mountain rather than on a mountain? And generally, can something be in a mountain without being inside it?

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If you're being corrected, in would be superficial: There's a cave in the mountain. (We can see it.) NORAD offices are inside the mountain. (We can't see it.) There is a window in the wall. There are wires inside the wall. If it doesn't go into the mountain, it's on the mountain. –  SrJoven Aug 25 '14 at 12:33
A peak would be in the mountains, but certainly not in a single mountain. –  oerkelens Aug 25 '14 at 12:53
Quite simply, don't use 'in' with mountains. It's that simple. The peak, for example, is "on" a mountain or "part of" a mountain. "in" would only be used in, incredibly obscure cases - such as referring to a mine or tunnel. it's that simple. –  Joe Blow Aug 25 '14 at 13:09
I would not say a peak was on a mountain. It HAS a peak. The mountain's peak. –  mplungjan Aug 25 '14 at 13:18
@SrJoven — I never said it couldn't have a peak. But it is not in the mountain. –  oerkelens Aug 25 '14 at 14:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Things which can be in a mountain are principally those which intrude inwardly upon its profile or its expected profile, or are entirely encompassed by its expected profile. For example, there can be a hole, or a ravine, or door in a mountain, -- as there can be a hole in an apple, -- because they are inward projections or modifications when compared to the expected profile of the mountain. "The door in the mountain leads to a magical kingdom".

There can be gold, or other minerals, in a mountain, -- as there can be a worm in an apple, -- as they are encompassed by its profile. But these are also inside the mountain (or apple), which includes only those things which are in a mountain and which are also not evident from its surface. In these contexts inside is more likely to be used, but in is also correct. "There is a dragon inside the mountain".

More generally, surface features of any kind are on the mountain (including those things which are in the mountain but not inside it, such as ravines). This includes boulders, ravines, and tea shops. "There is a tea shop on Mount Snowdon".

Something as fundamental to a mountain as a peak, however is of the mountain, as it is a fundamental constituent part. In contexts where, for example, a dragon is known -- distinctively and crucially -- to sleep inside Mount Fire, it can be referred to as the dragon of Mount Fire as it is an important constituent of that mountain. "The north face of the Eiger is hellish".

Prepositions are slippery and complex in all language. Good luck.

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The list below looking at actual usage proves that "in" does not imply "intrude inwardly". A school in the mountain, the military forces in the mountain, the stone house in the mountain are all not inside it, but on the outside. Indeed, even "a hole in" does not necessarily refer to the inward projection, but can just as well refer to the outside of it. A hole in a sock is not inside the sock. And some things for all intents and purposes do not even have an inside (e.g. a page), yet can still have holes in them. As you say, prepositions are complex. This answer is oversimplifying. –  RegDwigнt Aug 26 '14 at 8:58
I have two questions following that peak is used with of: does a mountain have only one peak, and is a mountain range essentially a mountain with many peaks? –  Aleksandar Savkov Aug 26 '14 at 13:30
@AleksandarSavkov: Some people would say that Everest has two peaks ("the south summit of Everest"), others maybe that it's not a peak, and a mountain has only one peak. Some people might inconsistently do both: it's a matter of technical definitions and in plain language both make sense. A mountain range is considered several mountains, not one mountain with several peaks. It's difficult to write the technical definitions to support those intuitions, but ordinary speakers of the language don't care. –  Steve Jessop Aug 26 '14 at 14:14
I did look at your list, Reg, but out of context it's very hard to work out what many of them might mean. For example in what way was "the school in the mountain". Maybe it was "a school in the mountains" which is a different proposition, there's not enough context to say. It looks like they were extracted by some kind of automatic process without human intervention. I decided to stop at four paragraphs: I'm sure a (boring) book could be written about the subject. –  Dan Sheppard Aug 26 '14 at 20:04
@AleksandarSavkov : if there is more than one peak then they are "the peaks of the mountain". A mountain range can be used in an analagous way. However, be careful that "mountains" can be used to mean "a mountainous terrain", which is different, because it has different borders. For example, there could be "a hospital in the mountains". "the mountains" has a border, and the hospital is within it. –  Dan Sheppard Aug 26 '14 at 20:08

There are many, many things that can be in a mountain. The Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus list some of them:

  • cracks
  • a link
  • no progress
  • us
  • Alexander VII
  • about 1,100 people
  • other military forces besides NORAD and Northcom
  • 60,000 slave laborers, one of them Rudy Kennedy
  • a door
  • a hole
  • a cave
  • a warm way station
  • a stone house
  • a school
  • Helm's Deep
  • another hole
  • one of these cloaking shields

But no, what clearly cannot be in the mountain is its peak.

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+1 for making me end my working day with heartfelt laughter! –  oerkelens Aug 25 '14 at 14:42
LOL awesome.... –  Joe Blow Aug 25 '14 at 15:03
But gold is in tham thar hills. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 25 '14 at 15:12
I'm curious about Alexander VII and "about 1,100 people" being in a mountain. I guess the context these expressions appeared in would make complete sense but for non-native speakers, which the OP clearly is, it's not the most helpful of lists. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '14 at 4:46
@Mari-LouA I submit this list is way more helpful than the accepted answer, which claims that anything in a mountain must intrude inwardly, while this list right here proves that that is patently false. Half of those things are not inside the mountain, but indeed on its outside. As to the context, that is what I supplied the links for. It is trivial to enter "Alexander VII" in the search box there and see the context for yourself. –  RegDwigнt Aug 26 '14 at 8:51

The other answers have addressed "in a mountain" competently, but when skimming I noticed no one presented the similar (and common) case of "in the mountains," which only means being among them, without regard to being above or below the surface of the terrain.

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It's a valid observation but it doesn't even attempt to answer the OP's questions: "can I say that a peak is in a mountain rather than on a mountain? (...) can something be in a mountain without being inside it?" –  Mari-Lou A Aug 26 '14 at 4:50
@Mari-Lou That's fair. I thought an answer might give it more attention than a comment, and since the OP seems to be coming at the language from outside I thought the information was still useful so I went for it... I don't think I can answer better than the answers already given, but do you think I should add in answers to the question? Or withdraw my (not-)answer entirely? –  Erin Anne Aug 27 '14 at 2:45
I wouldn't withdraw it, no. As to whether you should edit, do so if you think your contribution adds something new and useful. :) –  Mari-Lou A Aug 27 '14 at 6:51

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