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I'm sure virtually everyone agrees that people live on the Isle of Wight, but in Ireland.

Apparently the usage depends somewhat on physical size, but that can't be the whole story. How exactly do we decide which form to use? And are there any really glaring 'outliers' that don't fit the normal pattern?

LATER - I must just add that the most uncertain case I've found so far is The Falklands. Most people go for in there, but a substantial minority (about 1 in 3) opt for on.

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Isn't there a semantic difference between the sentences? You live on a land mass but you live in a nation/city/place. So you could rearrange that to be "I live on the isle of Ireland". So I'm not sure size is relevant. The isles of wight/mann/scilly are the names of the islands themselves, not of the countries they represent. Edit: whoops, Neil Fein got an answer in first. –  Andy F May 9 '11 at 9:00
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The answer you are looking for is 42 acres. –  billynomates May 9 '11 at 9:50
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@FumbleFingers He meant 42 acres. He told me personally. We were bros. –  billynomates May 9 '11 at 13:00
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I live on Earth. –  Jon Purdy May 9 '11 at 15:40
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I live off the land. Also consider "I live overseas", "I live above ground", "I live for Israel", ... –  Jim Balter May 11 '11 at 23:29

6 Answers 6

up vote 42 down vote accepted

In my experience, this is often based on whether one is speaking of geographical versus political locations, and also the context of what you're saying. You would be "on" an island or continent or planet, but you'd be "in" a country or city or region.

So:

  • One would live in England, China, Canada, New York City, North America. (Political locales.)

  • One might be located on the British isles, Manhattan Island, on the continent of North America, the planet Mars. (Geographical locations.)

It's kind of fuzzy, though, because I've heard of people living in Africa or Antarctica. Can anyone think of exceptions to this—this is English, of course there will be some—or help clarify further?


Edit: Wow, that's quite the discussion going on in the comments!

I'm convinced that while this answer is an extreme generalization, it does seems to serve as a good starting point, if nothing else. Like everything else in English, there are no absolutes.

  • There's some consensus that multiple islands (Hawaii, Japan) forces a political interpretation, and you'd live in Japan but on the island of Honshu (although you'd live in Honshu).
  • There's also some disagreement about whether you live on or in a continent.
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@Sam - Speak for yourself, Earthling. :) –  Neil Fein May 9 '11 at 5:21
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Not sure about this, but maybe it has something to do with man-made borders? As in, countries and cities have borders, you live in the borders. But continents and islands have coastlines, even though the landmass keeps going until the sea floor. –  Neil Fein May 9 '11 at 5:43
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Do I live on the British Isles or in them? I would say in. –  Mild Fuzz May 9 '11 at 11:06
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+1 It's not a question of size but of context. Most New Yorkers live in Manhattan, but on Long Island. (Well, most New Yorkers actually live in Brooklyn or Queens). However, if for some reason they did say Manhattan Island, they would indeed say on it. Similarly, people would live on the island of Great Britain, even though they live in Great Britain. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 12:18
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Indeed, I think multiple islands forces a political interpretation (e.g. you can't live "on" Hawaii, you can only live on Maui, the Big Island, etc). Living "on" a continent doesn't work for me either - you live "in" Africa, Australia, Antarctica, North America, South America, Eurasia. –  ncoghlan May 9 '11 at 12:47

I live in Manhattan. I also live on Long Island. Bear in mind that Manhattan is much smaller than Long Island.

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According to Neil, that's because Manhattan is a political entity. BUT: People live in Manhattan, and on Staten Island. Both of them are islands, and both of them are the same kind of political entity (borough of New York City). So there's not really any logic to this. –  Mike Baranczak May 9 '11 at 16:42
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@Mike Baranczak: I think the (imperfectly applied) logic is that you normally live on anything with Island or Isle in its name, and that takes precedence over another rule saying you normally live in any placename generally recognised as being a political / administrative entity. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 16:50
    
@FumbleFingers: No, people definitely live in Rhode Island. –  Kosmonaut May 9 '11 at 21:43
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@kosmonaut Rhode Island isn't an Island! –  Joel Spolsky Jun 16 '11 at 3:53
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@Joel Spolsky: "Rhode Island" was a counterexample for the assertion that you "live on anything with Island or Isle in its name". Clearly more goes into it than just the name. –  Kosmonaut Jun 16 '11 at 11:59

Would you live on the Napa River Valley or in it? I think it may be more related to the containment of the item/object in question. For example, I can stand on the ground, atop a rock, but in a hole, river, or valley. Similarly, fish live in the ocean, but ships float on it.

In this case it might be more appropriate to think of in as within. I'm not going in the door, I'm standing within the walls of the house. The shortened version of that being, "I'm standing in the house."

The same could apply to continents and why the accepted answer notes that some may make reference to "living in Africa." This is because they are within the borders of the continent of Africa.

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You live in the Napa River Valley. However, if you are right next to the water (or have a houseboat), you could say you live on the Napa River. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 14 '12 at 14:55
    
@jwpat7 Thanks for the edits! –  Kevin Peno Jun 14 '12 at 18:24

It also depends on the physical geography. You live in the Dales (valleys) but on the Moors.

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As I pointed out (along with various other prepositions) in about the 12th comment against @Robusto's earlier Answer. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 16:34

You live "on" a hump, but "in" a bowl. Once something is big enough that it becomes larger or more irregular (no longer expressible as a single characteristic) than a bowl, you change from "in" to "on."

Therefore, "in" Africa or other continent. "In" Ireland. When you express the concept of a country as an island, you emphasize it standing out of the water and it becomes a hump, and you change to "on."

This can apply in the plural, so The Falklands can be either multiple bumps, or one political entity.

I believe this generalizes all the other comments made, even the one about Earth - a bump in space.

Listen to the sound of "on the British Isles" and "in the British Isles" and you will be able to discern the isles rising out of the sea in the first case, and being an indistinguishable entity in the second.

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I'm still not sold on the "size" mattering here. –  Kevin Peno May 10 '11 at 21:08

Perhaps it's not merely the size that matters, but also the shape. For example, the word on seems to flow rather naturally when talking about with peninsulas; I know people from Massachusetts rarely use the preposition in, instead opting for on:

  • He was born on Cape Cod, then moved away when he was in his twenties.
  • We'll be vacationing on the Cape next summer.
  • George was born in Cape Town, but now he lives on Cape Cod.
  • Well, my goodness. How often do you see a bear on Cape Cod?

I don't know if there's a hard and fast rule that will always work. Sometimes local culture might favor one preposition over the other.

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I think it's clear from other answers/comments that there's no "hard and fast rule" in play. Google Books, for example, reports about 2M results for both in and on the Falkland Islands, so even the presence of the word "islands" doesn't force the same preposition from everyone. In the end I think the dominant factor is geographical on versus political in, but even that's only a tendency, not a rule. –  FumbleFingers Jun 14 '12 at 16:25
    
@FumbleFingers: I agree; the only rule is, "There is no one rule," and that was already pretty well-established. (I merely noticed nothing had been said about peninsulas yet, and thought it might be worth adding the note.) –  J.R. Jun 14 '12 at 17:24
    
Yeah - I think I already knew there wouldn't be an absolute rule when I first posed the question. But I did feel a bit sheepish when I realised my original assumption counted for nothing (size loses out to administrative allegiance as well as to performance! :) The note is noted, but I can't in all conscience upvote it! –  FumbleFingers Jun 14 '12 at 20:15
    
Fine by me if you don't want to upvote it ~ I sure wouldn't want you to violate your conscience! :^) It just felt good to get it off my chest. Sometimes the contribution is reward enough, all by itself. –  J.R. Jun 14 '12 at 21:20
    
It is a good point, and well made. If it had been a comment, I'm sure I'd have upvoted it straight off. The bar's higher for answers though. Neil's answer went through a fair amount of discussion & revision before I upvoted it, and it wasn't until quite a bit later that I finally "accepted" it (so maybe I'll surprise you with an unexpected upvote many weeks from now! :) –  FumbleFingers Jun 14 '12 at 23:39

protected by Jasper Loy Jun 14 '12 at 8:39

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