English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As it is common with people from my country, I have an immense difficulty with prepositions in English, especially with the use of in and on.

When the preposition indicates the position of the object it is a bit easier to decide which one to use, but as it requires thinking from me, I still say things like "I put the bill in the fridge", "my pencil is on my bag", etc, even though if I think about it, I would know how to say it correctly.

Of course, even in those cases where the preposition indicates position the decision is not always clear, as is the case for example with "on the bus" (you are not on top of the bus, you are inside the bus) or "he is in bed" (you are not inside the bed, you are on top of your bed).

Other cases are even less clear, and I believe there is no real rule to decide what should be said; the person should just know it. Two examples are "in a bad mood", "you are on my mind".

So my first question is whether there is really no rule to help me. The second question refers to two of the cases where I still don't know whether to use in or on:

  • good luck on/in your exam

  • in/on the list

The last one is especially important to me, as I have asked a number of native speakers, and each time I get a different answer. The only consensus seems to be the case where you say "on top of the list". Apart from that, some people will say that I should say "his name is in the list" whereas others think I should say "his name is on the list". And yeah, a couple of people did tell me that I can use either.

Can someone help me?

share|improve this question
    
For the record, which country are you from? – Arlen Beiler Aug 7 '10 at 11:52
    
I am from Brazil... For the record, it is on my profile :) – Vivi Aug 7 '10 at 23:51
3  
Just a note, but the bed thing may make more sense if you consider the coverings of the bed to be grouped together with the bed in such statements. It's why I think of someone being "in bed" when they're under the covers, but "on the bed" if they're on top of the covers. When the bed has no covers, it's undefined behavior. – JAB Jul 7 '11 at 16:14
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm not surprised you are getting different answers to some of these, because this is just the sort of thing that tends to vary quite a bit by region. For instance, as someone raised in California, I say that I am "in line", meaning I am waiting in line. Others (I believe this is a northeastern thing, but I may be wrong) say "on line", which has always sounded very odd to me.

One of the reasons you get this kind of variation, I'm afraid, is precisely because there are no consistent rules. Or rather, I should say, that there are many cases where one or the other could be used depending on how you conceptualize the situation, and these are just conventional. For instance, in your bus example: on the one had you are definitely inside the bus, but on the other you have boarded and stepped onto (not on top of) the bus, so you can see how the latter may have come about.

For my dialect, it's: "good luck on" and "on the list".

Though I think both variants sound fine too.

share|improve this answer
    
I have a story about the "on the bus". I read somewhere (or someone explained to me) that back in the day buses were open, so that one wasn't inside the bus per se, but rather on the top of the bus. That is the reason why it is on rather than in (whether that is true or not, it is another story). Maybe one of the etymologists can verify this story? – Vivi Aug 7 '10 at 8:36
2  
I grew up in Virginia and now live in Tennessee. I have only ever heard "on (the) line" for telephone calls, the internet, and the like. For standing in line? Never. – kitukwfyer Aug 7 '10 at 23:20
3  
If it helps: Something is on a list because it's written on the paper that contains the list. – Marthaª Nov 8 '10 at 19:41
2  
And regarding in line versus on line - in the UK we say "in a queue" ;-) – psmears Mar 11 '11 at 11:28
1  
I always thought it was "good luck with your exam".. – henginy Jul 20 '11 at 9:55

Deeper, more profound answers require one to appeal to Linguistics. So I Googled "semantics of english prepositions" which revealed many references such as the following:

Applying Cognitive Linguistics to Learning the Semantics of English to, for and at: An Experimental Investigation by Andrea Tyler, Charles Mueller, Vu Ho.

At 26 pages, it is too long to reproduce here, but the following quote from p 2 of 26 (Introduction) should already convince you of and to evidence its helpfulness.

  Language teachers and researchers have long recognized that the acquisition of prepositions poses major challenges for second language learners (e.g., Celce- Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1999). One reason for this is that the semantics of prepositions are notoriously difficult to characterize. For instance, on first inspection, the distinction between prepositions such as over and above is quite unclear. On one hand, the sentence:
The picture is over the mantle,   is a near paraphrase of:   The picture is above the mantle.
On the other hand, the sentence:
Mary hung her jacket over the back of the chair
is interpreted as meaning something quite different than:
Mary hung her jacket above the back of the chair.
Additionally, prepositions tend to develop a complex set of extended meanings, for instance, over has developed at least 16 meanings, many of which do not appear to be systematically related. Although linguists have long been aware that prepositions develop complex polysemy networks, the meaning networks surrounding spatial markers (and the systematic processes of meaning extension from which they result) have only become the foci of linguistic inquiry in the last 20 years. Even the best descriptive grammars and dictionaries present the multiple meanings of spatial language as largely arbitrary. Traditional accounts have represented the semantics of English prepositions as arbitrary (Bloomfield, 1933; Frank, 1972; Chomsky, 1995). Consequently, pedagogical treatments have often suggested memorization as the best strategy. Studies show that accurate use of spatial language is one of the last elements learned and many highly proficient L2 speakers never attain native speaker-like use (e.g., Lam, 2009). Indeed, Lam found that L2 Spanish learners made virtually no gains in their mastery of the prepositions por and para over the course of four years of college Spanish.
   Cognitive Linguistics (CL) offers an alternative perspective, suggesting that the many distinct meanings associated with a particular preposition are related in systematic, principled ways (e.g., Brugman, 1988; Dewell, 1994; Dirven, 1993; Lakoff, 1987; Linder, 1982; Hawkins, 1988; Herskovits, 1986, 1988; Tyler and Evans, 2001a, 2003; Vandeloise, 1991, 1994)

Ensure to consult and try the many References on pp 22-26, which includes (on page 25) the following which I plan to read myself:

Tyler, A. & Evans, V. Reprint ed, 2007. The Semantics of English Prepositions: Spatial Scenes, Embodied Meaning and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

share|improve this answer
    
Most unhelpful answer, the excerpt mentions "over" and "above" but nothing that actually helps learners understand the difference between "on" and "in". The overly long and verbose introduction is just waffle, citing books and authors and telling learners there are no fixed rules, exactly what Alan Hogue said in his answer. – Mari-Lou A Apr 6 at 8:06
    
@Mari-LouA I am troubled that you found this Most unhelpful. What other method exists to master adpositions then? Did you read the book suggested in the last paragraph? The excerpt does not state that there are no fixed rules; rather it states: Cognitive Linguistics (CL) offers an alternative perspective, suggesting that the many distinct meanings associated with a particular preposition are related in systematic, principled ways. – Timere Apr 6 at 15:29
    
No, of course I didn't read the book, I read your answer today. What I do though is to look up words in a dictionary and discover which prepositions are most commonly used in conjunction, I also "Google" to double-check stuff. Your answer doesn't mention "on" nor "in" anywhere, which is what the OP was specifically asking about in the title and in the body. If you have read the book, why not post a brief summary of your findings. – Mari-Lou A Apr 6 at 15:34

protected by tchrist Oct 1 '12 at 3:35

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.