I'm struggling to explain to someone why the following two sentences are both correct:

  1. "Students, though not necessarily working in the society, are also important members"
  2. "Students, though not necessarily at work in the society, are also important members"

As I understand it, "working" is a present participle, but what is "at work" best described as? Is it simply a preposition squished together with a verb, or is there a more specific grammatical name for the elements at play???


  • Used without a helping verb, the present participle functions as an adjective. In your example, if it weren't for the syntactically irrelevant in the society, I might expect in work rather than at work. If a college made special arrangements for in-work students they'd often be hyphenated in that sequence, but not when referring to them as students in work (i.e. employed, with a job). Dec 2, 2017 at 17:24
  • Collins have good examples showing the different meanings the fixed phrase 'at work' is used with. It's a prepositional phrase, but the example 'He's not in at the moment – he's at work' uses a more spatially tied prepositional sense than 'They are at work trying to overthrow the dictator' does. Though 'work' here certainly invokes action / taking a stance, it would not be analysed as a verb. Dec 2, 2017 at 17:40
  • Please include the research you’ve done. Dec 2, 2017 at 17:45
  • Even though not a native speaker I am, the difference is clear. 1 conveys "Students who are not required to work in society are also important members. Whereas, 2 conveys somewhat vague. If I hear the sentence, I would probably ask "what work? Do you have a job? Or do you mean your work ( homework )?"
    – user193343
    Jun 30, 2018 at 15:57
  • Can not upvote any of answers sorry.
    – user193343
    Jun 30, 2018 at 16:46

5 Answers 5


"Working" generally implies active participation, You are doing something right now.

"At Work" means that the person in question is currently at a place where work is being conducted, though they could or couldn't be actually working at the time.

When preceded by "not necessarily", the statements following become ambiguous. Because of this, with both statements the implication that the students aren't actively participating (but are valued nonetheless) is being conveyed.

  • 1
    ' "At Work" means that the person in question is currently at a place where work is being conducted': so 'Those former students who are at work in the society are obviously important members' would mean they never leave their place of work? No, this is a different sense of 'at work': employed. May 27, 2019 at 12:24

The phrase "at work" indicates a state in which the student is working at a job, not a generic activity. When someone is having dinner with the folks they are "at table". This is different than just being in proximity to furniture.

As a part of speech I don't have a better answer than yours but the difference is real.

  • I would say that "at work" does not necessarily mean being employed. Volunteers and activists can both be described as being "at work in society" the former performing useful functions and the latter trying to change things. People running foodbanks are "at work" providing food and climate change activists are "at work" trying to change the way the world works. In most cases these people are either "in work" as well because they need to live or they are pensioned or drawing benefits to sustain themselves. Those "in work" often see the paid job as less significant than the voluntary one.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 9, 2022 at 0:23

I think the sentences mean different things. The first is ambiguous, it could be taken to mean that having students in the society is not working, whilst the second is clearly considering the work students do, or don't, put into it.


Your real problem, Elaine, is that neither sentence properly expresses the idea you are trying to express.

It is very odd to say that a student is not working. That is what students are supposed to be doing! It is also a little odd to say that a student is “not at work”. If she is in a lecture, then she cannot be ‘at work’ at that time. That would means she has a job and is ‘at work’ at the time. So I guess you mean ‘is IN work’ (= ‘has a paid job’). The fact that a student is not in work does not mean she is not a useful member of society.

Forgive me, but I think English is not your first language. The tell tale word is ‘the’ before ‘society’. In most European languages other than English and Greek, abstract nouns have the definite article in front them: ‘la vie’, ‘la vita’ ... So you cannot say “in the society”. You should say “in society”.

The better way of saying it is:- “Students, though not necessarily in work, are still useful members of society.”

  • 3
    Is this a BrE thing? i am not aware of anyone in AmE who would use the term in work to mean “has a paid job”. We would say employed. “in work” sounds like “not fully developed- still in the process of being created”
    – Jim
    Apr 30, 2018 at 23:01
  • @Jim It must be as you say. The press, statisticians and Government departments, as well as politicians, constantly speak of people ‘in work’ and ‘out of work’. It is not necessarily exactly the same as ‘unemployed’. But they are similar.
    – Tuffy
    Apr 30, 2018 at 23:11
  • Interesting now that you point it out- we do say “out of work” ...
    – Jim
    Apr 30, 2018 at 23:15
  • Wait, wait wait please. The better way of saying it is:- “Students, though not necessarily in work, are still useful members of society sounds like though the students do not study, they are important in the society. Am I wrong here?
    – user193343
    Jun 30, 2018 at 16:46
  • 1
    This is the first time I heard the word "in work" as Jim says.... at work in my opinion would suggest you are uhm...at work, lol, meaning, you are engaging in your current job. Isn't it a not nice tactic to change the OP's question? I personally think...though I can not give much information since I am not a native speaker...
    – user193343
    Jun 30, 2018 at 21:08

Both these constructions are grammatically correct and may be used interchangeably in this example, because they may both be translated as "students do not have jobs in society".

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