Take the 2-minute tour ×
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.

I sometimes get confused whether to use in or at. For example,

Children were not at school yesterday, because yesterday was a holiday.

Children were not in school yesterday, because yesterday was a holiday.

Is there a rule of thumb to not confuse in and at?

share|improve this question
2  
We just as often say "have school" (AmE). "The kids didn't have school yesterday because of the holiday." –  Julia Apr 12 '12 at 4:21
    
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Not really, 'in school' is perhaps more common American English while 'at school' is more British but both are equally 'correct'. Similarly an American would probably say 'in college' while a Brit would say 'at university'.

In tends to be used for institutions, so your are 'in hospital' or rather than 'at hospital' but 'at home' not 'in home' - although you might be put 'in a home'

It's just one of those things!

edit: there is perhaps a slight subtle difference that 'in school' means they attend school - as opposed to having finished school, while 'at school' means they are there now.
So "are your children in school" = are they under 16 or 18 ? But "are your children at school" = are they at school today or are they at home.
(but that's from a BE perspective)

share|improve this answer
    
So, does it hurt your ears if you hear "Children were at school" or you wouldn't really notice the oversight? –  Nemoden Apr 11 '12 at 4:50
2  
@mgb My take (also BE) on your final point is that "in school" would only be used as you describe, but "at school" could be used in either instance: "he's not gone to university yet - he's still at/in school" and "he hasn't got home yet - he's still at school" all sound fine to me, but "he hasn't got home yet - he's still in school" would raise an eyebrow, since the implication is that the reason he's not home is that he's too young. –  Graham Snyder Apr 11 '12 at 15:30
add comment

Children who are at school are on the school grounds.

Children who are in school are in their classrooms.

(At least, those are the initial images that come to mind when I hear those two prepositions, and try to differentiate between them – although that differentiation is more forced than the norm).

In this case, either one will work just fine, because children who are at school (on the school grounds) are also, by default, in school (in their classrooms). On a holiday, they are neither in school nor at school, so you can use either preposition without any loss of meaning.

The one exception may be if the football team had a Saturday practice. In that case, I might say that David was at the school, but not in school – but that is a rare circumstance. Normally, either word works fine for the examples you provided.

As far as other diffentiations go:

  • I may be at work, but I'm never in work – unless I'm lost in my work.

  • I may be at home, but I'm never in home – only in my house.

  • I might speak in jest, but I would never speak at jest.

  • I might be at the restaurant, but I could be in the restaurant. At the restaurant would include being in the parking lot, but I probably wouldn't be at the parking lot – unless we were meeting at the parking lot.

Maybe it just takes a little practice. I'm reminded of this quip my father once told me:

The worms were eating in earnest. Poor Ernest.

share|improve this answer
4  
I think that on school grounds/in classrooms distinction is spurious. As @mgb says, the primary difference is simply US/UK preference between essentially equivalent forms. Your other examples mostly concern specific idiomatic usages. You're in work if you have a job, but at work while you're working. Everyone speaks of being at home, never in home. For other contexts, in is usually more "spatially precise" than at, which can often mean simply "right next to" rather than "inside". –  FumbleFingers Apr 11 '12 at 3:08
    
@FumbleFingers: Precisely; good elaboration on what I tried to convey. Macmillan list over 20 definitions and subdefinitions for at, and more than 60 for in, with the primary meaning of both exactly the same: "used for stating where someone or something is." Ergo, I don't think there's any surefire "rule of thumb to not confuse in and at," esp. with all their idiomatic forms. –  J.R. Apr 11 '12 at 9:21
    
@FumbleFingers: interestingly, you're still at school until school leaving age, but still in school till 4.15: the reverse of at/in work. –  TimLymington Apr 11 '12 at 11:57
    
@TimLymington: It is rather odd - but as J.R. acknowledges, effectively unpredictable idiomatic usages abound in this area. Plus as we see from certain US/UK splits, often there's no universal agreement on which preposition to use, or what if any different meanings might be implied by either. I still think on average "in" is more "spatial" than "at" - it's just that some referents have multiple meanings (school/work = education/employment, as well as the buildings where those activities take place). –  FumbleFingers Apr 11 '12 at 13:02
1  
The in/at difference doesn't normally mean an indoors/outdoors in BE but is an institutional thing. You are 'in' school/prison/the army/hospital implies you are forced to attend. While 'at' generally just implies location, 'at' school/home/the seaside –  mgb Apr 11 '12 at 15:40
add comment

I've found the following answer in my high-school English grammar for Italian students (based on BE):

Some nouns such as "school", "restaurant", "bank", "theatre", "swimming pool", "café", etc. require either at or in, depending on whether you consider the place for its function or its material space.

"Jim is not here, he's at school." VS "There are 50 classrooms in the school."

"Was Susan at the swimming pool with you?" VS "Is John already in the swimming pool?"

"They are having a snack at a café." VS "She was sitting in a café."

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think another distinction to add here, just because nobody seems to have mentioned it, is that the word "school" has different meanings in AE and BE. In the US, if somebody is "still in school" that really just means (s)he is studying somewhere, maybe in high school, maybe in medical school, who knows. In my understanding, BE speakers use "school" to mean secondary school, never college/university.

share|improve this answer
    
School also means primary school. You're right that it does not mean college or university. –  Tristan Aug 13 '13 at 0:51
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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