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At the beginning of the century.
In the beginning of the century.

How to clearly distinguish when to use at, or in?

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My mother absolutely hates this exact distinction; for example she complains that saying the kids are at school sounds like the kids have been splattered against the side of the building (like throwing a ball at the school). I’ve tried explaining that the kids could still be at school but not in school because they may be in the playground, but that just makes her imagine the kids buried in the ground. –  Synetech Mar 1 '11 at 21:16
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

In general, "at" marks a spot and "in" marks a space. Obviously, there are idiomatic exceptions, but this really isn't one. The beginning of a period of time is a "spot", the period of time itself is rather "spacious".

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time is a "spot"? not sure if I fully understand this... –  Pablo Oct 8 '10 at 11:03
    
Well, time like length, breadth, width is but a dimension, and there is something like a spot in time (no dimension on the time line, an instant). As time is discrete (there is a time intervall that cannot be further divided), a spot would be of that exact length (something like 1E-38 s, if I am correct). But let's leave physics: at would be right there, right at the turn of the century (within a few days?), while in would be a time span that is a little longer, within an intervall. –  malach Oct 8 '10 at 11:57
    
Maybe "point" instead of "spot" is better here. –  Peter Eisentraut Oct 8 '10 at 14:30
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I wouldn't consider the beginning of a century a spot/point. When we say "beginning of a century", you're not referencing any specific time or date, but the period that comprises the first years of a century. I do agree with your explanation for "at" vs. "in" as "point" vs. "period". I only disagree with the classification of "beginning of a century" as point. –  b.roth Oct 8 '10 at 14:50
    
@Bruno: I'm with you on this. The beginning of the century is a period of time which is short compared to the century but rather long otherwise; Some people may use this phrase to mean the first decade or even longer. I might say "At the beginning of the 20th Century women generally couldn't vote but by the end of World War II many nations had granted them this right". In this sentence "beginning of the 20th century" doesn't simply mean Jan 1 1900. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 8 '10 at 15:36
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To answer the question: I would never say "in the beginning of the century". I think Peter Eisntraut's argument is essential correct: "the beginning of the century" is notionally a point, not a period (even though in practice, "at the beginning of the century" may in context cover a period of several years).

In fact the only instance I can think of of "In the beginning" is the opening of St John's Gospel. That phrase is now archaic, and would not be used except in imitation of that specific use.

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"In ~" is Just Plain Wrong. Acceptable usages would be "at the beginning of the century" or "in the early years [etc.] of the century".

"In the beginning" as a collocation does not take a referent - it refers to some (contextually defined) absolute start (the beginning of the story, the creation of the world, etc.). It is familiar as the opening words of Genesis and of the gospel of John in the King James Bible.

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Any general rule for that? –  Pablo Oct 9 '10 at 2:51
    
I think that the general "at" for a point, "in" for a period or span is the way to go. In the eighties, at the end of the eighties, at the turn of the century, in the /fin de siècle/ era, ... (the last is a bit laboured, though) –  Albert Herring Oct 9 '10 at 22:45
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