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Which of the following two are correct?

  1. Melodies floating in relaxing atmosphere.

  2. Melodies floating on relaxing atmosphere.

My gut feeling says that it should be 1, but I am just a bit confused.

Thanks.

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I ran a Google Books search for the phrase "relaxing atmosphere" covering the years 1800 through 2008, and (after discarding as many duplicate matches as I easily could) I counted 132 instances where the phrase was introduced by "in" and zero instances where it was introduced by "on." So your gut feeling is correct: "in [the or a] relaxing atmosphere" is common in English, but "on [the or a] relaxing atmosphere" is not.

Why that should be so is harder to explain. One way to asses the situation is to look at comparable phrases and see whether they behave differently.

Consider the parallel case where, instead of atmosphere, the fluid where the floating occurs is water. In common English parlance, you can float in water (that is, be submerged but not have sunk to the bottom of the body of water), or you can float on water (that is, float on the surface of the water and not be fully submerged).

Now consider air as the fluid. Again you can float in air (that is, in the midst of the air, as if submerged in it but not sunk to the bottom of it) or on air (that is, as if reposing on a layer of air—though here, admittedly, additional air exists above and around you as well.

Logically, atmosphere seems quite similar to water and air as a fluid medium. But it does have one significant distinction: We rarely refer to "atmosphere" without a definite or indefinite article, except when speaking or writing a clipped, telegraph "want-ad" style where multiple words drop out of a description, as in this example from Skiing magazine (January 1974):

On Sugarbush Access Road, Warren, Vt. Walking distance to the slopes. Newest Lodge in the area. Modern rooms, all with private bath, cozy relaxing atmosphere, cocktail lounge, fireplace. EP, meals available. Write or phone for brochure and rates.

This tendency suggests that we very infrequently refer to atmosphere as if it were a substance (as we sometimes do with water, air, and mud, for example) and much more often think of it as a surrounding or enveloping medium, influence or environment—something you may be in but not on. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003) supports this notion with its first three main definitions of atmosphere:

1 a : the gaseous envelope of a celestial body (as a planet) b : the whole mass of air surrounding the earth 2 : the air of a locality 3 : a surrounding influence or environment {an atmosphere of hostility}

So perhaps the primary reason atmosphere takes in but not on is that we normally conceive of it as "the whole mass" of some literally or figuratively unitary spatial thing, and not as the component substance making up that mass.

Atmosphere is not alone in being used with in but not with on. A similar distinction prevails with galaxies: We speak of something being "in the Milky Way" but never "on the Milky Way."

  • I think that was the most comprehensive answer I could get. Extremely helpful. Thanks a lot. :) Actually, I have dropped the article intentionally for the exact reason you have mentioned - "want-ad" style. I basically want to use the sentence in a tag-line, and therefore wanted to make sure that is is grammatically correct too. (Alias LoveEnigma) – LoveEnigma Aug 29 '14 at 9:14
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They are both incorrect, the correct English would be:

Melodies floating in a relaxing atmosphere.

And even then, you may be trying to say that:

...the floating melodies creating a relaxing atmosphere.

Or:

The floating melodies were creating a relaxing atmosphere.

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