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This is sort of a follow up to my question here.

I was told a while ago that the reason why we use "on the bus" instead of "in the bus" is because back in the day buses were open, that is, they didn't have a roof.

Is this story correct or is there another reason why the correct expression is "on the bus", in spite of the fact that when one gets on the bus, he is actually inside the bus?

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It might also be interesting to note that we get on a plane, and on a ship. Since ships existed before buses, it could just be a carry-on from that, but that is just my guess. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 7 '10 at 8:42
    
Ships are open and the first planes were also open from what I am told, but who knows? Maybe you are right! –  Vivi Aug 7 '10 at 8:47
    
Yes, it would have been "on" because ships are open. But the expressions to "board a boat" and "get on a boat" seem to work for any form of mass transport. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 7 '10 at 9:29
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@VincentMcNabb, the first cars were also open, but we are still in a car, rather than on it (unless we’re tied to the roof, of course). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 26 '13 at 10:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I doubt that story. It's hard for me to imagine how one would verify it in any case.

Notice that mass transportation generally uses "on". "On the bus", "on the train", "on the plane".

On the other hand, cars and small recreational airplanes would be "in". While small vehicles that are not enclosed are "on": "on the bike" "on the motorcycle", etc.

My intuition is that it has something to do with the notion of boarding or embarking. I would never say I boarded my car. But to board something is basically to "step onto" something. Again, it depends on how the event is conceptualized. There may be a historical explanation, but again I would be wary of them without substantial empirical support.

Having said that, I think the more likely historical explanation would be that "on" is used for mass transit by analogy with traveling by boat -- the first form of mass transportation.

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It is less about "on the bus" and more about the meaning of "get on":

  1. (transitive) To board or mount (something), especially a vehicle.
    Please get on the bus as quickly as possible.
    .
  2. (intransitive) To enter a vehicle.
    She has no trouble getting off a bus but has difficulty getting on.

One of the antonyms for "get on" would of course be... "get off".

  1. To disembark from mass transportation, such as a bus or train.
    You get off the train at the third stop.

The Visual Thesaurus illustrates many other definitions of "get on", including a social aspect (getting along with), which is why:

  • the British situation comedy of the 70' was called "On The Buses" (not "in the buses"...)

On The Buses

You did not just get in a bus, but also on an adventure with people you were about to interact with.

  • an association about "reuniting incarcerated moms and dads with their children once a year near Mother's Day and Father's Day" is called On The Bus.
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Love the "On The Buses" reference:-) –  ukayer Nov 3 '10 at 3:10
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I don't think "get on" and "get off" illuminate the question at all: you might just as well then ask why you "get on" a bus and "get in" a car. I also cannot see what relevance "get on" in the social sense has to this questtion. –  Colin Fine Nov 16 '10 at 14:14
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If you were using an out-of-service bus to shelter from the rain, I think you'd say get in the bus. You only use get on the bus when you're using it for transportation. –  Peter Shor Sep 22 '12 at 11:59

The notion of using "on" with open conveyances is valid for some things - bicycles, horses, and farm tractors, for instance. However, the difference with other conveyances is whether one is customarily sitting or standing when using them. Getting "in" a boat or plane means it is so small that users are not normally able to stand. Getting "on" a boat or plane, however, means it is large enough for users to easily stand. The same for a truck - if "in" the truck, you are sitting, but if "on" the truck, you are standing (probably on the truck bed). For an elevator, the difference is a matter of emphasis - usually, you get "on" an elevator as you do any other "standing" conveyance, but to say you are "in" the elevator is a contrast to being outside the elevator - you are inside the structure. Conversely, you get off of conveyances that you get on, and you get out of conveyances that you get in (get in / off the ship, get in / out of the car).

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