While reading a short story by Washington Irving called The Adventure of the German Student, I came across this line:

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution.

Why has the author used arrived at while in modern usage in is used after arrive for big places?


4 Answers 4


You are right, the preposition in should be used but there is an exception to it:

They arrived at Cardiff! Being Cardiff a big town, "in" should be used, but "at" is correct because we actually mean arrive at Cardiff station or airport.

I think this exception can be applied to your case. The author means that Wolfgang arrived, probably, at Paris station.

  • I agree that one arrives at a railway station or airport. However, stations and airports are not unique to Cardiff, so if your observation about the idiomatic way to describe arriving in that city is correct, there must presumably be some other factor at work. The question is then "What is that reason?"
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 21:21
  • Cardiff or any other city may fit in the example. The issue is that when you use 'arrive at' followed by the name of a big city, what is understood is that you arrived at the station or airport (usually main points of access to big cites) of that city. I think that this is the case shown by OP in his sentence.
    – user66974
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 21:28
  • I agree, that is the likely reason for the use of at in the Washington Irving story. But you stated that Cardiff was an exception to the in rule "because we actually mean arrive at Cardiff station or airport". What I was asking is what makes Cardiff so different from all the other cities that have railways and airports.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 21:35
  • The exception is not 'Cardiff' but the use of 'arrive at' used with a city. Any other name of a big city would, off course, fit in my example!!
    – user66974
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 21:39
  • One would also use 'Napoleon's armies arrived at Moscow' meaning that they reached the outskirts; I don't know if this is the case here (with further progress prohibitively difficult and/or risky). Commented May 12, 2014 at 23:05

The simple answer is that speakers have been steadily eschewing the in variant of the expression. Google's Ngram tool shows a consistent decline for "arrived at Paris"; today, that expression occurs with a tenfold smaller frequency than it did 200 years ago, even though travel to Paris by speakers of English is presumably several orders of magnitude greater today than it was then.

However, "arrived in Paris" has also declined in frequency, with a prevalence rate in 2000 that was about half of what it was in 1900. This is rather puzzling, and I can't think of a plausible reason for it.

  • Some trains scheduled to arrive at London were so late they arrived in London. Commented May 12, 2014 at 23:00
  • @ Edwin Ashworth: I didn't get your point, Edwin. Could you tell me what you mean exactly?
    – M.N
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 3:59

Wolfgang probably arrived at the boundary of Paris, not actually in the city yet, which explains why "at" is used.


In the past it was common to say at [city] when we would say in [city]. I think authors sometimes do this for the "great cities of Europe", so to speak, in order to sound vaguely old-fashioned, scholarly or impressive. I suspect it's because this usage is commonly seen in old printed texts, occurs a lot in the King James Bible, and is normal in the study of classical Greece and Rome. It might be an imitation of a grammatical quirk of Latin, see my answer to another question.

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