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One question came in my exam:

We've decided to place the television on/in the left corner and sofa set at/in the right corner of the room.

For non-livings there should be a common preposition. Unfortunately, I have two English teachers and their answers contradict. One says in both cases in should be used, and the other says for television it's on.

Could anybody explain?

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What did you put in your exam answer, and why? – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 14:58
Why did you say "in", and what reason was given for that being wrong? – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 15:03
Hmm. You've now asked three questions in quick succession about on versus in. Does this reference help? Or this one? They may not be the best but both indicate a difference between in and on. In the corner and at the corner are slightly less clear-cut. – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 15:20
@AndrewLeach: Thanks a lot. My confusion is somehow disappearing among these. – Sudhir Dec 29 '12 at 16:18
There are two problems here. One is the dimensionality of the metaphor -- locational at or container in, which have different boundary conditions -- and the other is the position of the observer for determining Left/Right orientation. – John Lawler Dec 29 '12 at 17:28
up vote 2 down vote accepted

All possible permutations of on/in/at, in both slots, are grammatical English sentences, but one choice ("in" for both) is the convention in my dialect. I'm just going to discuss the part about the television; the logic is the same for the sofa set.

The central meaning of "in" is "inside": A gift is in a box. For a noun to be in a corner, therefore, you should be talking about the concave side of the corner. This is normally how we talk about the corner of a room in my dialect, so "in" is the natural choice for me for both the television and the sofa set. In might also be how we talk about the corner of a building: The manager's office is in the northeast corner of building 12. However, we might be talking about the outside of the building, and then you would use at instead: There is an oak tree at the northeast corner of building 12.

The central meaning of "on" is "stacked on top of". It is difficult to imagine a situation where something could be stacked on top of the corner of a room, so "on" sounds very strange when you are talking about the position of objects within rooms. But you would say that a dinner plate is on the corner of a table. On is also used by convention when describing where buildings are relative to streets: Building 12 is on the corner of Route 19 and Tower Road. This is perhaps because the building is, if only metaphorically, stacked on the ground at that location.

The central meaning of "at" is "located at a definite point in space". It is not wrong to use "at the corner" for all of the above examples, but when a more specific spatial relationship applies (insideness, stacked-atop-ness, etc) English prefers that you use the more specific preposition.

The television and sofa set being inanimate objects is not important. I cannot presently think of any preposition that cares whether the noun is animate.

Regarding one teacher saying that on should be used for a television relative to a corner of a room, I find that peculiar, but I can make up a motivation for saying it that way. Normally you would not put a television directly on the floor; there would be a piece of furniture (a table, let's say) to raise the TV to a comfortable viewing height. I would describe this situation as: the TV is on the table, but both the TV and the table are in the corner. Your teacher may instead feel that only the table is in the corner, and because the TV is on the table it is also on the corner. I would not be surprised to learn that this is a difference of dialect.

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While a TV can be on the corner of a table, it can never be on the corner of a room. Given the current context I think the teacher is in error. +1 for the rest of your answer. – Jim Dec 29 '12 at 19:42
@Jim I have been surprised so many times by dialectal differences ("Frequency of bus is very less" is apparently the correct way to say "Buses are very infrequent" in some registers of Indian English!) that I have given up on saying someone is in error. I'll only go as far as "If you say that people will not understand what you mean," and "The TV is on the corner of the room" isn't even that bad. – zwol Dec 29 '12 at 22:54

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