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An English learner asked me a question what's the difference between:

  1. on hand
  2. to hand
  3. at hand
  4. in hand

And how to identify the difference and use them correctly?

All these phrasal verbs are so close to each other in terms of the definition that English learners get confused about understanding them. How to easily define and differentiate them?

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    Those are phrases (prepositional phrases), but not verbs; I think you should modify that. – LPH Apr 1 at 7:49
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    You need to give sentences, with some context, that show how you intend to use the phrases. – Greybeard Apr 1 at 11:00
  • @Greybeard I don't think that what is being asked is an explanation of a particular case of use, but rather, a general "recipe" that could enable one to decide which is the proper one to use in any given case. According to that we don't need any sample sentences. – LPH Apr 1 at 12:30
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You could say that, if for all these four locutions, you keep to the meanings that have to do with having something at one's disposal (and that seems to be the idea in this concern for differentiating them from one another), then there is a similarity between "on" and "in" as they connote availability, and between "at" and "to" as they connote the idea of being easily available. However, the particular idiomatic use of each will show that much finer distinctions are to be made, and that this rough guideline is insufficient to warrant a proper use in each given context (for instance, "on" is preferable to "in" in context where providing help is the matter at hand).
There is then a difference that can be made between "at" and "to": whereas the former connotes easiness because of nearness (in space or time), the latter connotes easiness of a more general nature; this is reflected in the fact that the adverb "close" is more often used to reinforce "at hand" (ngram) and the adverb "ready" more often used to reinforce "to hand" (ngram). I suppose that we can say that when the context calls specifically for "at" you can be less precise and use "to" without being significantly off the mark.

The definitions of these phrases can be listed for comparison (SOED, examples from OALD);

in hand
​in actual possession, to one's disposal; to spare
♦ if you have time or money in hand, it is left and available to be used (OALD)
♦ We managed to redecorate the house and still have some savings in hand.
♦ She completed the first part of the exam with over an hour in hand.

on hand
in one's possession, in one's charge or keeping
available, especially to help (OALD)
♦ The emergency services were on hand with medical advice. (OALD)

at hand
a) near, close by b) near in time
♦ There are good cafes and a restaurant close at hand. (OALD)
♦ Help was at hand. (OALD, 2005 paper ed.)
Note: this expression is reinforced often by the adverb "close": "close at hand".

to hand
within reach, accessible
♦ I'm afraid I don't have the latest figures to hand. (OALD)
Note: this expression is reinforced often by the adverb "ready": "ready to hand".

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    A thorough answer. The only small thing I add is that "in hand" may occur in sentences such as "We have the matter in hand", meaning that we are dealing with the matter but it it is not finished yet. – Anton Apr 1 at 21:27
  • @Anton That corresponds to the dictionary definition "in process or preparation, receiving attention"; I don't think it fits in the category of general meaning "availability"; I think that not even the definition "held in the hand" (only literal meaning out of the 4 in my SOED) will do; whatever is being held is certainly available but that is not the idea in the phrase. – LPH Apr 1 at 22:13

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