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Why are you "On a train" yet "In a car" when you are inside both vehicles?

"On a bike" makes sense but "On a plane" seems wrong as you are actually inside the plane rather than on it.

  • Seems to vary, depending on when the words were written: Google NGram searcher. – Peter K. Oct 18 '13 at 13:30
  • Even that Ngram can't really shed too much light on the question – not when there are so many hits like, "I fell asleep in a train seat," "he died in a train crash," "she was running around in a train station," and, "I was lost in a train of thought." – J.R. Dec 24 '14 at 2:09
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Generally speaking, the metaphoric senses of get on and get in follow dimensionality:

  • the object of on is a Surface, i.e, an object with 2 dimensions, or the surface of a 3-D object
  • the object of in is a Container, i.e, a bounded 2-D or 3-D object

In terms of conveyances,

  • humans get on a raft, a horse, a bicycle, a sled, a wagon, a skateboard, a surfboard
  • humans get in a car, a boat, a ship, a railroad car, a trolley, a bus, an airplane

This much is predictable.

The problem arises with scheduled public conveyances; in that case only,
a human who gets in the conveyance physically
also is on the roster of passengers metaphorically
(on the roster is a 2-D "page/paper" metaphor).

So one can be said to get on the bus, the plane, the train, the trolley; but not the taxi.

  • 1
    I think it's more common to get on a boat, and aircraft terminology is largely borrowed from nautical, but otherwise I agree, this sounds right. – Bradd Szonye Oct 18 '13 at 20:56
  • You get on a large vessel, but that's because everything is flat, and it's a scheduled conveyance (whether public or not), so you're on the list. You get in a rowboat, a canoe, or a kayak, however. – John Lawler Oct 20 '13 at 21:32
  • I think we get on a bus for the same reason we get on a skateboard: because during the act of boarding at least, and sometimes even during the ride, we are standing (on a surface which holds us up). When we get in a car, we do so by immediately and inevitably sitting (in seat which contains our body) – Dan Bron Jun 29 '16 at 14:13
  • Good point. The posture of the agent may well make a difference; stand is a bedrock human reference, for instance. – John Lawler Jun 29 '16 at 14:33
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    @JohnLawler You've pointed me to that paper before, and I've read it, and I found it fascinating. I even used it to support an argument over on Linguistics.SE! – Dan Bron Jun 30 '16 at 1:06
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I remember different opinions on that:

  • When you get in the car, you get directly into your seat, while on public transport you have to walk to it (plane, train, bus).

  • You can stand up and walk around in public transport, thus the "on".

  • Public transport is "elevated", you need to go up a bit to get on it (stairs, platform).

  • "car" deriving from "carriage", a vehicle mounted with a car. That also explains why we get on the train, but in the train car.

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