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I usually see this phrase used interchangeably with the prepositions in and on. I know that their meaning isn’t the same, but I can’t think of situations where we should use one instead of another. Can anyone shed some light on any differences between these two:

  1. In the menu.
  2. On the menu.

Just to clarify, I’m talking about menus of computer programs.

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/246/… –  user19148 Jul 12 '12 at 21:49
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A menu can be literal (as when dining in a restaurant), virtual (as when making a bank withdrawal at a cash machine), or figurative (as when considering any list of options). In some cases, on is well-understood but not in, and in other cases both are suitable. Where are you seeing them used interchangeably? –  choster Jul 12 '12 at 22:03
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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This comes up often, and here's the general answer.

In this specific case, menu can be viewed either physically, printed on paper to read, i.e,

  • 2-Dimensional, in which case on is used
    • It's right there on the menu; you can't miss it.

or informationally, like a list, or a report; this a Container metaphor, i.e,

  • 3-Dimensional, in which case in is used.
    • It's hard to resist the Armenian dishes in the menu.

Quite often it makes no difference, because the information that's in the menu is also printed on the menu.

This alternation is true of any physical noun that can be interpreted as information, like story, picture, book, article, paper, report, list, plans, etc. These are collectively called "Picture Nouns" and they have very complex syntax in English.

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+1 for the information that's in the menu is also printed on the menu; as well as quite often it makes no difference. –  J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 22:22
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Couldn't resist clicking on the up vote... –  Noah Jul 13 '12 at 8:11
    
You have often remarked in this site these dimensional analogies. Thank you for this work. It is very helpful for non native speakers. +1 –  user19148 Jul 13 '12 at 9:43
    
Thank you, but this is is not my work -- this is Chuck Fillmore's. Everybody who speaks or wants to speak English should read his Deixis Lectures. These particular facts are in the second lecture. –  John Lawler Jul 13 '12 at 13:53
    
Yet another answer here to the same question, with the same answer. And another. And another. –  John Lawler Oct 30 '13 at 19:30
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If one wants to ask if a menu contains a given item X, one could use either of "Is X on the menu?" and "Is X in the menu?", but by personal preference I'd incline toward on.

If one wants to ask if a person is sitting atop a menu, one could say "Are you sitting on the menu?" and would not say "Are you sitting in the menu?".

If one wants to ask if someone trapped a fly by closing a restaurant's menu upon it, one could say "Is the fly in the menu?" and would not say "Is the fly on the menu?". The latter would ask (ambiguously) either whether the fly is sitting on the menu or whether the fly is listed on the menu.

You may wish to look up in and on in a dictionary and find out what they mean.

Also see 40-some sentences using in ... menu and a couple hundred using on ... menu, per just-the-word.com. A notable fraction of the in ... menu examples are related to constructing menus for computer applications; I don't know if that is a corpus-related artifact or a true reflection of usage.

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