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 Prepositions 'at', 'on', 'in'
in the sand

Javier Balsells from Spain asks: Why, when you are on the beach you walk in the sand? But when you are in the street, you walk on foot? Is there any logical rule to it?

Poliang Lin in the USA asks:
Do we say we read something in a newspaper, or on a newspaper?

Pilar Velarde in Peru asks:
What are the rules for using to and at? Why is it that you say: I will meet you at the bank and I will go to the bank?

Weena Kanagpon from Thailand asks:
Which is correct: in the street or on the street? And how about at the village or in the village?

Roger replies:more questions

At, on and in are the main prepositions in English indicating position. And I think there is some logic for the preference for one of them over the other two in given situations, Javier.

Generally speaking:

  • in is used to specify position inside larger areas;
  • on is used to specify position on a line or continuum;
  • at is used to specify position in a larger place.
Compare the following:
  • 'They were walking on the beach.'
  • 'They were playing in the sand.'
  • 'They were lying on the warm sand, reading their books.'
In the first example, we imagine people at a certain point on their walk along the beach; in the second example a group of children surrounded by sand and having fun in the sand, and in the third example, older children or adults lying on top of the sand, so on is most appropriate here.


1. In your example, Javier, of people walking in the sand, one imagines soft sand, which their feet sometimes disappear into, but if you said on the sand, we would imagine it as hard sand which their feet do not sink into. Both on and in are therefore possible alternatives in this example.

As we can see, use of an appropriate preposition sometimes depends on how you think about it.

2. In your example, Poliang, we read about things in a newspaper. To find what we are looking for, we usually have to open the newspaper and look inside. Therefore in is the most appropriate preposition. Compare the following:

  • 'I saw it on BBC World, heard about it on the BBC World Service and then read about it in the Guardian Weekly.'
3. In your example, Pilar, 'I will meet you at the bank' the precise location remains vague to the reader. It could be anywhere inside or outside the bank, although the two people who are arranging the meeting obviously know exactly where they are going to meet and do not need to specify it further. Compare the following:
  • 'I bumped into him at the supermarket.' (Precise location unspecified)

  • 'I bumped into him at the checkout in the supermarket.' (Precise location specified)
4. In your example, Weena, it depends upon perspective, really, Weena. Compare the following:
  • 'There were crowds of people on the streets.'

  • 'In the street where I live there are speed bumps every fifty yards.'
In the first example, we imagine someone surveying the crowds from a distance and in the second example the perspective is from inside the street.

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