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Last updated at 15:38 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

In hand / at hand



A question from Ajay in Russia:
What is the difference between in hand and at hand? Thanks a lot.

Gareth Rees answers

Click to listen to Gareth's answer:

Hello Ajay.
Thank you for your question about phrases, or expressions, that use the word hand.

First of all, I should explain that ‘in my hand’ has the straightforward, literal meaning that something is physically inside my hand, that I am holding something. However, the two phrases that you mention, namely ‘at hand’ and ‘in hand’, have metaphorical, rather than literal, meanings.

If you have something at hand, you have something conveniently near you. This something might be a book, a tool or a piece of information. For example:

Make sure the safety equipment is at hand when you start working, in case there are any problems.
I don’t have Sarah’s number at hand, so I’ll tell you it later.

We can actually use the phrase to hand with the same meaning, as in this example.

Can you tell me how many items we sold last month?
I’m afraid I haven’t got that information to hand. Can I tell you later?

The second expression, in hand, has a few meanings or uses. Firstly, if you have something in hand, then you have an extra amount of something, or you have more than you need. We may use this to talk about time, for example,

I’m not worried about finishing this essay before the deadline as I still have three days in hand.

If you follow football, you will often hear the following, Chelsea are two points behind the league leaders, Manchester United, but Chelsea do have a game in hand. This means that, at the moment, Chelsea have played one game fewer than Manchester United.

Secondly, the job, situation, topic or problem that you are dealing with at the moment can be described as the problem in hand. So, at the moment, the topic in hand is the meaning of the phrase ‘in hand’.

Thirdly, if you want to say that you are in control of a difficult situation, you can say that you have the situation in hand. For example,

Don’t worry about the preparations for the party, I’ve got everything in hand. You don’t need to do anything and it’ll all be ready in time.

So, I hope I have dealt with the matter in hand and I recommend that you keep the BBC Learning English website at hand whenever you are studying English, as you never know what useful things you might find in the archive.

About Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA. He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the University of the Arts, London.


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