I have difficulties with understanding what preposition should I use after a verb "to work" when I'm talking about spending time on development/resolvment of a specific task. Should I say "to work on a task" or "to work at a task" And is there any difference at all?

For instance, Oxfords Learner's Dictionaries says that both are fine if we are implying doing something that involves physical or mental effort, especially as part of a job (which is basically the meaning I want to use). Yet, I'm still not quite sure because if we take into consideration meanings of such phrasal verbs as "to work on sth." and "to work at sth.", we can see the difference. Does the difference in meanings of these phrasal verbs transfer to a regular verb "to work"?

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    Work on a task is the more common expression. It conveys the meaning you want to express both literally and idiomatically - books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user66974
    Nov 23, 2016 at 15:28
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    As for the idiomatic vs literal usage, I'd say that the meaning in both cases is the one suggested by the dictionary, unless you use the prepositions to suggest different contexts such as: I work at home or I work on Sunday morning.
    – user66974
    Nov 23, 2016 at 15:40

1 Answer 1


I will make up some sentences with context so you can get a feel for these.

I worked on this assignment for three hours and then the professor sent an email saying there was a serious error in the assignment and it was cancelled. Jeez!

"Work at" something implies persistence, chipping away at something.

I'll tell you how I managed to submit this assignment on time. I worked at it for a couple hours every day and then did an all-nighter on the last day. Whew!

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