As a British English speaker, I was reading a manuscript written by an American English speaker and came across a sentence in the form:

"She had long hair and so had to sit in the back [of the animal that the group were riding]"

As a British English speaker, I'd never use the phrase "sit in" to describe anything other than a person inside a vehicle or object. So I ended up with the comical image of a young lady sitting inside a riding animal, complete with doors and wheels.

I suggested that the sentence should have been:

"She had long hair and so had to sit at the back [of the group/of the animal that the group were riding]."

On reading this, my friend commented that she'd never use the phrase "at the back" and that the construction didn't even feel grammatical to her. I was very surprised to hear that, since the phrase "sat at the back [of a lecture theatre perhaps]" is an utterly standard phrasing in my idiolect.

We were wondering if this is a common difference between American English and British English, since our responses were so different.

  • Any sub-part of the back of a rideable animal is really too small and insufficiently "enclosed" to be referenced as a metaphorical container using the preposition in. Use on for the horse context. For something like a lecture hall, it's largely a stylistic choice whether to use in or at, but for smaller and more obviously enclosed spaces (a car, for example), in is far more likely. I think AmE is more likely to discard the article in, say, At the cinema, we always like to sit in back (where BrE would use sit in the back). – FumbleFingers Mar 8 '17 at 14:02
  • for clarification, the group of people were riding an undead pterosaur. It's just about large enough that it could theoretically contain a person. – Racheet Mar 8 '17 at 14:08
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    I can't help noticing that you've used metaphoric contain in that comment. Arguably hold or support would be more appropriate there, but if "container" metaphors work for you in the "pterosaur's back" context then I'm not clear why you have doubts about using in in the first place. – FumbleFingers Mar 8 '17 at 14:25
  • it's not that it works for me, so much as it works for the writer when it doesn't work for me. I'm trying to understand if it's just a difference in our native englishes or if it's something else. I can't well disregard her version, she has a reason to believe it correct. – Racheet Mar 8 '17 at 14:27
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    I think I'd use in the back if I think of back as a place (analogous to in the boot, or in the driver's seat), and at the back if I think of back as a position (analogous to at the front, at the side). – Lawrence Mar 8 '17 at 14:50

I'm not sure how it relates to preferred usage in any specific context, but increasingly for the general case, in occurs far more often in American English...

...where as you can see, in and at have reached near-parity. In contrast, British English continues to significantly favour at...

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