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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?

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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
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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

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 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.

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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
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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
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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
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And regarding in line versus on line - in the UK we say "in a queue" ;-) –  psmears Mar 11 '11 at 11:28
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I always thought it was "good luck with your exam".. –  henginy Jul 20 '11 at 9:55

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