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When do you use at the office? And when do you use in the office? What's the difference between the phrases?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

'At the office' refers generally to the state of someone who works in an office of some kind being at work, e.g.

"Where's Bob?", said Jim. "At the office.", replied John

It can also refer to an object being at said place of work:

"Where's your briefcase?", said Jim. "I left it at the office.", said John.

'In the office' refers to someone or something physically being in a specific office, e.g.

"Where's Bob?", said Jim. "In his office.", said John.

This would usually be used when the office in question was in close proximity to the speakers, for example if Jim and John were in another office in the same building as Bob.

"Where's the telephone?", said Jim. "It's in the office", said John.

However, in and at are often interchangeable. Take the briefcase example. John could have said:

"I left it in my office."

To summarise, 'at' is a more general, vague term, whereas 'in' usually refers to a specific location.

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1  
In some cases "the office" means "the place where I work" which could mean a building or a suite in a building. In other cases "the office" refers to a particular room. The context of the answer depends on the context of the question. –  John Satta Jan 24 '11 at 14:11
    
+1. "In the office" usually means "physically inside the office" which doesn't make as much sense when you are using "the office" metaphorically. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 24 '11 at 14:15

I suspect "at" is more often used with buildings or non-specific locations

  • John is at home.
  • John is at work.
  • John is at the shops.
  • John is at the office (meaning his office building).

I think "in" is more often used with specific rooms.

  • John is in the kitchen.
  • John is in the meeting room.
  • John is in his office.

This theory falls apart somewhat when I consider

  • John is in France.
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You're "in" the office if you mean to emphasise your physical location, inside a room where one works. You're "at" the office if you are at a place of work, but not emphasising a specific room.

So, "I need to have a printer in the office", but "I'm at the office, but I'll come home to see you soon."

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A close call. In my opinion, 'at' is used when one is correcting an implied absence

I shall be at the office tomorrow

implies the existence of doubt that I would have been there. Either I had previously said I would be away, or something led you to believe so and I am contradicting that belief.

I shall be in the office tomorrow

confirms my presence, as was anticipated (probably by both of us).

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