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I'm correcting a paper about a study abroad experience, and the person wrote:

During my third year at junior high, I traveled to my home town's sister city, Cooma, Australia, as a cultural exchange student with about 20 other junior high school students.

My immediate reaction was to change the first part to "third year in junior high" but then I started to second guess my change. Doing a search for the prevalence of using in / at / of - I found "third year at junior high" is used the least, followed by "third year of" in the middle, and with "third year in" being used the most. But of and in have very similar numbers. Both sound good to me as well. And we all know the prevalence does not always correlate to the correctness.

So my question is, which one of these is the most correct usage? And WHY is it correct?

As a side note for those who might be interested: At my Japanese school, they are taught to exclusively use "at" in these situations.

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    Can you supply more context, such as the complete sentence? Is there a sentence before/after that one? You seem to know preposition usage is very nuanced, so more context would help me, at least. – AmE speaker Sep 5 '17 at 0:05
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    In my area (Midwest US), I've never heard anyone say "at junior high", but I've seen it used that way elsewhere. It may be a matter of local preference. As for in/at vs of, that depends on context. Does the event that happened "during" that year have to do with the junior high itself? In that case, use in/at. Or is it something that just happened to occur at the point in your life when you were in junior high? In that case, "of" would be better. – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 0:51
  • Clare, I have added the complete sentence and some context, I hope that is better. ---- Filistinist, I really like your last advice. It's about a study abroad program, so I suppose in/at would be better. – KumaAra Sep 5 '17 at 0:54
  • As you have identified, these three prepositions are all correct and mostly can be used interchangeably. I think there may be subtle shades of meaning: “OF” is the most general relationship and indicates any type of connection. e.g. the teacher may be in their third year of junior high. “AT” refers to an activity or level of achievement. “IN” refers to being included in an institution. A home-schooled student would be at junior high but not in junior high. – smatterer Sep 5 '17 at 0:56
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    @KumaAra, after reading the full sentence, I had the same reaction as you. I immediately thought "in junior high" would be much better. I think the reason is the correspondence between "during" and "in". "During" in this particular case establishes a timeframe for a specific event. The specific event (exchange trip) is here described as happening sometime "IN" that timeframe, not "AT" a specified time. This is, of course, a misleading feeling. The preposition "in/at" refers to the school, not the event, so it shouldn't make a difference. But I think it still "feels" inconsistent, by proximity. – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 3:59
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Both in school and at school are equally acceptable. According to Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, 80.6), it is of a difference between AmE and BrE. In BrE, at school/college is commonly used and in AmE, in school/college is preferred.

There is a slight difference between them in meaning.

At school means the person is literally, physically, inside the school.

In school means the person is studying in general (usually at college or university) but not necessarily inside the school building at that moment.

Also, there is already an answer to a similar question, available here on this site. ( "In school" vs "at school")

  • So then by your reasoning, this sentence is incorrect? Because she was not literally inside the school, she was referencing an event that occurred while she was a 3rd year student. While the event was school related, the event did not occur within the school building. Also, I assume you don't think "I was in my third year of college" is correct. As you only suggested at/in in your answer. – KumaAra Sep 5 '17 at 4:01
  • Regarding "at school" vs "in school": can it be extended to this example? I don't think it's possible to say "at junior high" and mean it as a physical location. Or is it? Wouldn't it be "at the junior high", even in BrE? – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 4:26
  • @KumaAra The preposition of is not in class of prepositions pertaining to place/time. Of course, ''... third year of college...'' is grammatical. But of is usually used to show a possession, relation, connection etc. In this context, I believe in is more correct. – mahmud koya Sep 5 '17 at 4:34

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