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Origin/reason for the expression “on the bus” instead of “in the bus”

I'm an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher and I haven't been able to come up with a good principle for which preposition to use after get when referring to transportation.

Some examples:

  • Get in:
    • a car/taxi/van/truck, etc.
  • Get on:
    • a bus/plane/bike/truck, etc.

How can one choose whether to use in or on? Note that in some cases, such as the example with truck, either preposition is possible but the choice affects the meaning.

I've been telling my students that there is no rule, so they just have to memorize which preposition to use, but I'm really hoping I'm wrong.

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marked as duplicate by coleopterist, Mahnax, MετάEd, Barrie England, tchrist Dec 11 '12 at 12:15

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

    
@coleopterist: That question contains a partial answer, but it isn't very comprehensive. Furthermore, since the question itself is quite different, that question isn't likely to be found in a search for an answer to this qustion. –  Scott Severance Dec 11 '12 at 6:19
    
Actually, now that question is likely to be found in a search for an answer to this question. That's the whole point of duplicates: they are pointing to the original using a different wording. –  RegDwigнt Dec 11 '12 at 10:00

2 Answers 2

Memorization is probably the best approach for learners. Rules are not always helpful or learnable! That said, I actually think this is just the normal use of the two prepositions applied to vehicles. We use "in" when there's an enclosing space, so not for a bike, or horse, but for a car, van, or motorbike sidecar. However, this tends to be overridden if the vehicle is high off the ground (and so involves a bit of climbing), and in these cases, we prefer "on": plane, bus, etc. I think we can see this with truck: "in" sounds OK, but if it was a monster truck, "on" would seem more appropriate. And even with a normal truck, "in" would only be used for the cab; "on" would be prefered for the flatbed at the back.

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I would say that, in general, on is used in two cases:

  • When you mean atop (hence, get on a bicycle or a motorcycle)

  • When it's used as a shortened form for on board (hence, get on the plane, get on the train)

Otherwise, you can use in for getting inside vehicles (hence, get in the taxi).

This explains why I'd be more inclined to tell my kids to get in the van (when referring to the family van parked in our driveway), but I might say that I need to get on the van (when referring to a shuttle van going to or from an airport or hotel).

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