I sometimes get confused whether to use in or at. For example,

Children were not at school yesterday, because yesterday was a holiday.

Children were not in school yesterday, because yesterday was a holiday.

Is there a rule of thumb to not confuse in and at?


4 Answers 4


Not really, 'in school' is perhaps more common American English while 'at school' is more British but both are equally 'correct'. Similarly an American would probably say 'in college' while a Brit would say 'at university'.

In tends to be used for institutions, so you are 'in hospital' rather than 'at hospital' but 'at home' not 'in home' - although you might be put 'in a home'

It's just one of those things!

edit: there is perhaps a slight subtle difference that 'in school' means they attend school - as opposed to having finished school, while 'at school' means they are there now.
So "are your children in school" = are they under 16 or 18 ? But "are your children at school" = are they at school today or are they at home.
(but that's from a BE perspective)

  • 1
    So, does it hurt your ears if you hear "Children were at school" or you wouldn't really notice the oversight?
    – Nemoden
    Apr 11, 2012 at 4:50
  • 7
    @mgb My take (also BE) on your final point is that "in school" would only be used as you describe, but "at school" could be used in either instance: "he's not gone to university yet - he's still at/in school" and "he hasn't got home yet - he's still at school" all sound fine to me, but "he hasn't got home yet - he's still in school" would raise an eyebrow, since the implication is that the reason he's not home is that he's too young. Apr 11, 2012 at 15:30

Children who are at school are on the school grounds.

Children who are in school are in their classrooms.

(At least, those are the initial images that come to mind when I hear those two prepositions, and try to differentiate between them – although that differentiation is more forced than the norm).

In this case, either one will work just fine, because children who are at school (on the school grounds) are also, by default, in school (in their classrooms). On a holiday, they are neither in school nor at school, so you can use either preposition without any loss of meaning.

The one exception may be if the football team had a Saturday practice. In that case, I might say that David was at the school, but not in school – but that is a rare circumstance. Normally, either word works fine for the examples you provided.

As far as other diffentiations go:

  • I may be at work, but I'm never in work – unless I'm lost in my work.

  • I may be at home, but I'm never in home – only in my house.

  • I might speak in jest, but I would never speak at jest.

  • I might be at the restaurant, but I could be in the restaurant. At the restaurant would include being in the parking lot, but I probably wouldn't be at the parking lot – unless we were meeting at the parking lot.

Maybe it just takes a little practice. I'm reminded of this quip my father once told me:

The worms were eating in earnest. Poor Ernest.

  • 4
    I think that on school grounds/in classrooms distinction is spurious. As @mgb says, the primary difference is simply US/UK preference between essentially equivalent forms. Your other examples mostly concern specific idiomatic usages. You're in work if you have a job, but at work while you're working. Everyone speaks of being at home, never in home. For other contexts, in is usually more "spatially precise" than at, which can often mean simply "right next to" rather than "inside". Apr 11, 2012 at 3:08
  • @FumbleFingers: Precisely; good elaboration on what I tried to convey. Macmillan list over 20 definitions and subdefinitions for at, and more than 60 for in, with the primary meaning of both exactly the same: "used for stating where someone or something is." Ergo, I don't think there's any surefire "rule of thumb to not confuse in and at," esp. with all their idiomatic forms.
    – J.R.
    Apr 11, 2012 at 9:21
  • @FumbleFingers: interestingly, you're still at school until school leaving age, but still in school till 4.15: the reverse of at/in work. Apr 11, 2012 at 11:57
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    The in/at difference doesn't normally mean an indoors/outdoors in BE but is an institutional thing. You are 'in' school/prison/the army/hospital implies you are forced to attend. While 'at' generally just implies location, 'at' school/home/the seaside
    – mgb
    Apr 11, 2012 at 15:40
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    Both "at school" and "in school" can be used to refer to the period of one's life when one was enrolled in school, neither term always means physically present on school grounds. Context is everything.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 24, 2020 at 6:22

I've found the following answer in my high-school English grammar for Italian students (based on BE):

Some nouns such as "school", "restaurant", "bank", "theatre", "swimming pool", "café", etc. require either at or in, depending on whether you consider the place for its function or its material space.

"Jim is not here, he's at school." VS "There are 50 classrooms in the school."

"Was Susan at the swimming pool with you?" VS "Is John already in the swimming pool?"

"They are having a snack at a café." VS "She was sitting in a café."

  • The "function VS material space" is a great way of looking at it! (+1) :P
    – Mr Pie
    Dec 16, 2018 at 8:01

I think another distinction to add here, just because nobody seems to have mentioned it, is that the word "school" has different meanings in AE and BE. In the US, if somebody is "still in school" that really just means (s)he is studying somewhere, maybe in high school, maybe in medical school, who knows. In my understanding, BE speakers use "school" to mean secondary school, never college/university.

  • 1
    School also means primary school. You're right that it does not mean college or university.
    – Tristan
    Aug 13, 2013 at 0:51

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