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Is it correct to say “the bird is in the tree” or “on the tree”?

I have always been inclined to use the preposition "on" rather than "in" but I've come across a usage that made me feel a little perplexed.

Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree.

From Selected Essays by G.K Chesterton

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Oct 30 '12 at 14:30

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

If you want to say that something is resting on the upper surface of something else, then the proper idiom is on top of, as you noted.

But that isn't what Chesterton said. Rather, Chesterton said in the top of a tree. That is, he's not suggesting that they take lunch resting on the upper surface of a tree (which would be rather difficult), but rather in the upper portion of a tree.

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I deduce from your answer that the use of "on" in this context would be wrong. That strikes me as rather curious I thought at least the two prepositions might be interchangeable. Very interesting! –  Tanninah Oct 30 '12 at 15:46

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