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Twice in the book I'm currently reading (and I believe elsewhere occasionally) I've seen "on an elevator" where I (in the UK) would expect "in an elevator". Is "on" a common American usage (the rest of the book uses US spellings) or are they just typos / odd usage by the author?

I searched, but the only reference I could find was this question on another website which basically says "in" all the time.

The book in question is The Atlantis Gene (Origin Mystery, Book 1) by A.G.Riddle. The relevant excerpts (my emphasis) are:

Message: We were getting water together at the desk and got on the elevator together. Didn't know if you wanted to get together for a little extra exercise. Tell what floor I got off on.

Page 86; Kindle location 1353

and:

On the elevator, Kate had fought at the guards' vice-grip hold on her arms. They pinned her to the wall until the elevator doors opened,...

Page 133; Kindle location 2036

On searching for the above, I also found:

Josh felt his mouth go dry. "That's why you grabbed me off the elevator."

Page 48; Kindle location 749

where pulling someone "off" an elevator corresponds to them being "on" it beforehand (I'd probably have used "from" or "out of"). However, elsewhere there is:

Martin stepped out of the elevator onto the helipad.

Page 128; Kindle location 1970

rather than "stepped off the elevator".

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    I suppose if my wife called me on my cellphone and asked where I was, I would likely reply "in an elevator", if indeed I was. But I think most people in the US who read "on an elevator" rather than "in an elevator" would think nothing was particularly strange about it. – Hot Licks Sep 29 '15 at 23:26
  • That seems to be talking more about when board/aboard is appropriate (although the second answer does mention "get into an elevator"). My question is more about once you are in/on the elevator. – TripeHound Sep 29 '15 at 23:43
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    In the past, I have also asked about questions about expressions that I was unfamiliar with, but I always included the citation, the title of the book, and, sometimes, its page. You're going to have to do the same if you want somebody to answer the question title. – Mari-Lou A Sep 30 '15 at 5:30
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    @Mari-LouA I know what you are trying to do with the comment. But I think your wording doesn't serve the purpose. Can you just go easy with your comment? You could have said, "it is recommendable to include the citation in your question ." You sound like nobody will answer this question unless citation is included. Do you really think citation is absolutely necessary for this simple and popular expression? – user140086 Sep 30 '15 at 6:27
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    Perfectly normal usage IMO, to "get on" a vehicle that moves seems fine to me, I was thinking the examples were quite different e,g, "We were talking on the elevator..." etc.. that kind of thing. And I would have said "lift" is far more common in BrEng. – Mari-Lou A Sep 30 '15 at 9:54
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Qualitatively, 'in' usually is used for the metaphor of being within a surrounding structure, like a room or enclosure.

And 'on' is usually used for the metaphor of taking the conveyance (or more literally being on the top of a surface).

For example, being 'in a train' implies being inside a train car, being 'on a train' implies traveling using a train (or could mean you're traveling literally on the mostly flat roof of the train).

An elevator shares this ambiguity. 'In an elevator' is inside the box-like enclosure of the conveyance. 'On an elevator' is using the conveyence, like 'on a train, boat, plane'.


Also, note that 'lift' is a synonym for 'elevator' in the UK, where it is not at all in the US.


So as to frequency, a good quantitative, data driven comparison can be done using Google nGrams.

First let's look at the 8 possibilities of 'in' vs 'on', 'elevator' vs 'lift', US vs UK

Frequency of 'in' and 'on' an 'elevator' and 'lift' in US and UK

Google ngram of Frequencies of 'in' and 'on', 'elevator' and 'lift' in US and UK

First this confirms that 'lift' is rare in the US (the context for 'in a lift' seems likely to mean only as a synonym for elevator). Also, it is interesting to note that 'lift' and 'elevator' in the UK are mostly the same.

I interpret the graph to simply mean that, whether in or on an elevator, such statements are much more common in the US than in the UK. But eyeballing the relative frequencies, it looks roughly the same, that 'in' is used a lot more than 'on', whether restricted to the US or to the UK.

Fortunately, NGrams has some syntax to take ratios of two frequencies. This allows us to compare the ratio of 'in' to 'on' for elevators. Maybe Americans use 'on' much more frequently than 'in'. Also, to simplify, let's stick to elevator for the US ('lift' is so rare) and 'lift' for the UK (since it is roughly the same as 'elevator'):

Ratio of 'in' to 'on' a lift in UK vs an elevator in US

ratios

The ratios change over time, and between the US and UK, they cross a few times.

Considering after 1960, when they don't cross over so much, the UK favors 'in' to 'on' much more than the US does. So it is not surprising that when a BrE speaker visits the US, the few times more that people say 'on' in AmE might stand out

So, nowadays, to corroborate your feeling, the US is actually using 'on' more with respect to 'in' than in the UK. But in both places 'in' is still used more than 'on'. just not as much in the US.

Note: corpus searches like these have all sorts of caveats: mis-labelings of sources to UK or US, dates, but mostly fears of catching text with those searches that are not what you expected. I think that the complete prepositional phrase is long enough and not needing any context, to avoid most problems. If there are conflicting contexts or alternate terms that you can think of, they are welcome.

  • Great research. So the simple answer is: both US and UK tend to use "in" more than "on"; I'm more used to "in"; the author happens to use "on". Might be interesting to see how "in/on a lift" fares in UK texts. – TripeHound Mar 13 '18 at 16:24
  • @TripeHound Urgh. The 'I didn't think of that' rears its ugly head. That's the problem, setting up the problem correctly to begin with. 'lift' is not used at all in the US (at least not for elevator). So a quick look shows that, yes, 'on the lift' is hardly used in the UK, so the ration of 'on' to 'in' is way in favor of 'in' in the UK. I'll update soon – Mitch Mar 13 '18 at 17:54
  • "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language." Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost – TripeHound Mar 13 '18 at 18:01
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I believe there has to be a reason why people use "on" instead of "in" when talking about a place they are "in", for example, we use more on the bus, on the train, on the ship, and even on the space shuttle, etc. than "in".

According to Merriam-Webster, on is used as a function word to indicate means of conveyance

But strangely, in a (the) car is more used than on a (the) car. (Do I need to put Ngram here?)

I think the reason is that the car or the truck you are "in" is not moving at the time of speaking. You say "I am driving" rather than "I am in a car" when the car is "conveying you".

  • This seems to nicely capture why some things are "on" and others "in" (I'd be happy with all of "on the bus, on the train, on the ship"). Maybe it's just difference as to whether an elevator counts as a "conveyance" or not? – TripeHound Sep 30 '15 at 9:51
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    @TripeHound If you hear someone say you have to use "in" when an elevator is not moving and "on" when it is conveying you, you would think he/she is crazy. "I am in an elevator" sounds perfectly fine even if it is moving. I go to school by bus. You use "by" here. – user140086 Sep 30 '15 at 10:01
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If you're standing or are allowed to stand then its always "on". For example, on the train, on the bus, on the plane. While one can't travel standing in a Car so its always in the car. So technically it should be "on an elevator".

  • While this seems to be handy rule of thumb, do you have any sources to bolster it's accuracy? – Helmar Nov 1 '16 at 12:50

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