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This looks like a duplicate but it's not. Here is the 2013 question:

In farms or on farms? The OP only wanted to know which sentence was grammatically correct.

  1. They live the quiet life on farms
  2. They live the quiet life in farms

Instead I would like to know why we say “on a farm” and not “in a farm”

I was teaching English to a small group of Italian kids this morning, and we were playing "Guess which animal am I". While it was easy enough to get them to say

Do you live in a jungle?
Do you live in a house?
Do you live in the water?
Do you live in a tree?
Do you live in a garden?

For one kid the question

Do you live on a farm?

proved to be quite a battle, so I pretended to be deaf when he asked Do you live in a farm? until he got the phrase exactly right.

However, it would be neat if I could provide an easy explanation or mnemonic for these kids to remember, apart from me acting decrepit and deaf again next week. Any ideas?

Please, no comments on my being pedantic and fiscal, I know it's not the end of civilization as we know it, if a learner says I live in a farm but the preposition on is used in this case, and parents pay me to teach their kids!

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    Normal US usage would be "on a farm". "In a farm" simply sounds wrong. Not so much a matter of semantics (though there are fine-grained differences) as common usage. – Hot Licks Apr 11 '15 at 12:41
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    It gets even more confusing. You live in the mountains (plural), but you live on a mountain (singular). (Unless you are actually living inside the mountain, like a villain's secret base in a James Bond movie.) – Peter Shor Apr 11 '15 at 12:44
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    I would only use in a farm when I pictured the farm as an enclosing structure; that has its applications, but normally I envision a farm as a large, open, and two dimensional area. That is: a surface. So I'm on it. This comment thread on a related question may help clarify what I mean by giving other geographic and spatial examples. It's worth reading each of the comments under that answer for a fuller exposition. – Dan Bron Apr 11 '15 at 12:48
  • @DanBron so why do we ask: Do you live in a garden? And not on? I need something simple for these 8 year-olds. – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '15 at 12:50
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    @Mari-LouA Because a garden is enclosed. Because trees and jungles are three dimensional and have volume with well defined vertical boundaries. In some sense, all the ins have walls, which seems it might be easy enough to explain to kids. I expanded on this a bit in the comment thread I just referenced. See the continent vs galaxy example. You might want to skip the topology jargon with your 8-year-olds, however ;) – Dan Bron Apr 11 '15 at 12:55
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I haven't done any research in vetted sources for this answer, but here's how I approach it at low levels with my students. The following is a rule of thumb.

We use in to denote being within spaces that we perceive as being three-dimensional. Jungles, houses, trees and water are things which when we're in them surround us on all sides in a three dimensional way. Notice that in the Original Poster's examples, this applies to animals that live in the water. It isn't really true of humans - who might live on the water.

We also use in to describe being confined in a delineated two dimension area. For example, in a cell in your database or in a field or in London, in England and so forth. This, I think, is the reason for in a garden in the Original Poster's examples.

We use on to denote being on a surface or plane of some description:

  • on the wall
  • on the table
  • on your face
  • on the earth

This is especially true when we think of this surface or plane as extending out indefinitely or over some great distance:

  • on the beach
  • on the plains of Africa
  • on the open seas

It seems that in English, we view farms, ranches and the like as planes that extend outwards as opposed to as clearly defined two dimensional areas. (Compare with a garden or a field). Notice that with some words it just depends how we're thinking about them that determines whether we use in or on, for example with the word water. Also, sometimes we can just choose whether to use in or on because we can think about something as being either a delineated area or a plane:

  • in college grounds
  • on college grounds
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    On the beach; of course that's perfect for my "gruppetto". In Italian the equivalent is sulla (on the) spiaggia. Thank you! And for the bit about the garden, too. – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '15 at 18:17
  • Why somebody would or even dream of downvoting this answer is beyond my limited skills of comprehension. Unbelievable. – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '15 at 10:49
  • @Mari-LouA I think it's my pet troll! :) – Araucaria Apr 12 '15 at 12:32
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"On land" definitely emphasizes living on and above the surface of land/ground.

"In land/ground" emphasizes living inside the ground, under the surface of land/ground, like some mites do:

Insects and Mites of Western North America: A Manual and ... - Page 537

Edward Oliver Essig - 1958 The larvae live in ground and rock pools, brackish water, and salt marshes.

Now, a farm is flat and resides on the flatness of land, on land. Using "on" in connection with "living" accentuates living/being above ground. It also accentuates being out in free air most of the time, to work the land, and not hiding inside the houses and barns.

One can use in special circumstances "live in a farm," as Terry Pratchett (R.I.P.) and his coauthor say here:

The Folklore of Discworld - Page 88 Terry Pratchett, ‎Jacqueline Simpson - 2010

There was even one type, the house-elves, whom humans welcomed. The English called them hobs, pixies or pucks, the Scots brownies, the Scandinavians nisses and tomtes. These would actually live in a farm and bring it luck; they would

to accentuate that these house-elves had for their /main place the existence/base/abode/ the inside of the houses and barns belonging to a farm, houses that were on a farm, and not in a farm, as the statistics show

"houses on a farm" About 7,350 results

"houses in a farm" 3 results

again because they are seen to be built on the surface of land belonging to a farm.

  • The problem is that with these kids, I'm going to get the smart alec who pipes up: But Miss Marilou, a garden is flat, and also it is land! But, yes, on for surfaces is good. – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '15 at 13:08
  • @Mari-LouA - Just put on your best mom face and say "Because I said so." Not everything in English is perfectly logical. (In fact, one is often hard-pressed to fine anything that's logical.) – Hot Licks Apr 11 '15 at 13:24

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