Prepositions Made Easy: In, On, and At (with Video!)

in-on-at upside down pyramidAre prepositions really so difficult? What if I told you that IN JUST 5 MINUTES I could help you solve some of your most confusing preposition problems?

English learners everywhere are confused about prepositions, and English learners every always say it’s one of their biggest difficulties. But with the right strategies, prepositions DO NOT need to be so complicated. If you take a few minutes to learn a few tricks, and visualize the problem in a new way, your experience learning prepositions will be a lot easier. This is gonna be fun! Ready?

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Practice with a FREE Copy of Prepositions Exercises

Today, we’re going to explore how the prepositions AT, ON, and IN are used with TIME and PLACE, and use a formula that works in around 90% of cases. It’s not perfect, but it gives you a great foundation to learn the exceptions.

Given the fact that most people are visual learners, and most prepositions are best taught in a visual way, we’ll also use graphic organizers and a video lesson to teach this.

Watch A Video Lesson on This

Direct Link to Youtube

The Inverted Pyramid 

Before we explain a bit more, let’s take a good look at the picture one more time below.  Try to get a general idea of the organization and proportion.

The first thing I want you to recognize, and try your best to visualize as you learn these, there is a general flow with both time and location from general to specific. We’re going to explain it in the following way, first with time, then with location:

  1. The TOP, which is BIGGER and more GENERAL (IN)
  2. The MIDDLE, which is SMALLER and MORE SPECIFIC (ON)
  3. The BOTTOM, which is SMALLEST and the MOST SPECIFIC (AT)

in-on-at pyramid

Prepositions of Time

IN- The pyramid’s TOP (wider), which is BIGGER and more GENERAL:

  • Description: Bigger periods of time: Centuries, Decades, Years, Months
  • Examples: in the 20th century, in the 1980’s, in March, in the third week of April, in the future
  • Exceptions: in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon

ON- The pyramid’s MIDDLE part, which is SMALLER and MORE SPECIFIC:

  • Description: Days, or periods of time shorter than three days
  • Examples: on my birthday, on Saturday, on the weekend (United States), on June 8th
  • Exceptions: on my lunch break, on time

AT- The pyramid’s BOTTOM (pointed), the SMALLEST, and the MOST SPECIFIC:

  • Description: Specific times or small time periods.
  • Examples: at 9:00 PM, at lunch, at dinner, at the start of the party, at sunrise, at the start of the movie, at the moment
  • Exceptions: at night, at the weekend (England) 

in-on-at

Prepositions of Location

IN – The TOP (wider), which is BIGGER and more GENERAL:

  • Description: In larger areas (countries, states, cities, neighborhoods)
  • Examples: in the United States, in Miami, in my neighborhood
  • Exceptions: in downtown (“I work in downtown”)

ON – The MIDDLE, which is SMALLER and MORE SPECIFIC:

  • Description: a longer area, street, beach, river
  • Examples: on Broadway Street, on the beach, on my street 

AT – The pyramid’s BOTTOM (pointed), the SMALLEST, and the MOST SPECIFIC:

  • Description: the address or specific location, specific points.
  • Examples: at 345 broadway street, at the store, at my house

Prepositions of Placement

The mind map pyramid below explains TIME in the same way we did above (only this one is not inverted), but it also introduces prepositions PLACE/PLACEMENT, which we will focus on here.

Prepositions of Placement

IN – for enclosed spaces and personal modes of transportation

  • Enclosed Space: in the kitchen, in the house, the water is in the glass
  • Personal Modes of Transportation: get in the car, my friend is in the taxi

ON – for surfaces and public modes of transportation

  • Surfaces: on the floor, on the wall, the book is on the table, on a page, I put on my clothes (my clothes are on my body)
  • Public Modes of Transportation: on the bus, on the plane, on a boat, on a ship,
  • Exceptions: on my motorcycle, on my bike (these are personal modes of transportation, but we use “on”)

AT – for specific point (the same as prepositions of location)

  • at the bus stop, at the cinema, at the corner, at the top of the hill, at the mall

Becoming Friends With Prepositions

Again, these rules are not an exact science, but they will help you get past 90% of the preposition confusion that most people encounter with IN, ON, and AT.

After you learn these techniques, you will not only speak a lot better, and with a lot more confidence, but the final 5 to 10% of prepositions won’t seem too hard. It will probably take some study time and some memorization of collocations (“in the kitchen,” “at the mall,” but you will see that it’s a lot more manageable. The point is that you don’t want to be thinking about the rules too much when you’re communicating.

This will help make most of the process unconscious and automatic, which is exactly what fluency is.

You can use Anki, a really effective vocabulary study tool, or other free study resources that can make your process a lot easier to learn using these prepositions. Another thing that will naturally help is reading and making English a part of your life.

These are all very important parts of the Real Life English methodology. You can get FREE PDF Worksheets for this exercise by joining our global community (or a copy of our popular e-book, 101 Words You Won’t Learn at School)

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61 Comments

  1. adonis on June 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    hey, i loved it.

    since now, i’ll study and consult this!

    Tks

  2. Paulo Franca on June 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Dear Justin, thanks a lot for this. I am sure it will help many. I was reading your post, and the explanation on how to use "in" and "on". I have also heard that "in" is used for small means of transportation and "on" for larger ones. Do you agree? For example: one should say on a tractor, not in a tractor, right? Thanks in advance for your time.

  3. Paulo Franca on June 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Dear Justin, thanks a lot for this. I am sure it will help many. I was reading your post, and the explanation on how to use "in" and "on". I have also heard that "in" is used for small means of transportation and "on" for larger ones. Do you agree? For example: one should say on a tractor, not in a tractor, right? Thanks in advance for your time.

    • Justin Murray on June 17, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      Yeah I think you're right, Paulo! I'm gonna have to use your input to improve the article. Thank you for commenting.

    • Paulo Franca on June 19, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks a lot for your reply, Justin. I was also told the following on Facebook by Miracel Juanta (which I deem it is very clarifying): "'hi, paulo. if you can stand and move around the vehicle, then you use "on". so you say, "in a tractor" because you cannot stand and move around the tractor."'

  4. Ola El Masry on June 17, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    thank u so much.

  5. Jandira S. Pimentel on June 17, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I'd like to have it printed.

  6. Sergio Rodrigues on June 17, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    It’s worth a try to make easyer the explanation about such a trick subject lile prepositions – at least for Brazilians. However, in my view, the pyramid would be useful only if we could take it printed in our pocket!

  7. José Antonio Vergara on June 18, 2013 at 1:39 am

    very useful, thanks.

  8. ???? ???? on June 18, 2013 at 1:39 am

    Dear Justin, thanks a lot for this information.
    Best regards
    Ahmed Qeran…from saudia arabia

  9. Alicia Candiano on June 18, 2013 at 3:46 am

    I'm very delighted that your explanation is similar to mine. Best regards

  10. Sureeporn Kundilok on June 18, 2013 at 4:39 am

    Your post very good , thank you very much.

  11. FlorWrencia Dayao on June 18, 2013 at 5:51 am

    thank you so much…very useful to all learners…we love you!

    • Ram Padua on June 18, 2013 at 11:11 am

      how r u florwrencia

    • FlorWrencia Dayao on June 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      fine bro and you?

  12. Mehmet on June 18, 2013 at 2:51 am

    This video is helpful for me, thanks so much.

  13. Aberr on July 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    It is great

  14. shealynn on November 19, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I am ayoung lady.I have never used this site before…and I dont know how to use it.Im trying to do my language arts homework.I DONT KNOW HOW TO DO IT THO!!

  15. shealynn on November 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    some one help me plzzz!!

  16. shealynn on November 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    ???? ???? who r u??

    i feel stupid

  17. Bello Adebukola Fatima on February 13, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    This is really helpful to me. Thanks a lot.

  18. Yujiro Hanma on February 13, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks a lot for magnificent knowledge as above

  19. Sisi Sisi on February 13, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    hi .ready to help from Egypt

  20. mohammed on February 13, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    really very enjoyable and benficial for all learners.

  21. Ola El Masry on February 13, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    How can I help?

  22. Ola El Masry on February 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    How can I help?

  23. Ola El Masry on February 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    How can I help?

  24. Malik Ahmed on February 13, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    thanks a lot for your nice work

  25. Paul Beardsley on February 13, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    We do not say “on the weekend,” we say, “at the weekend.”

    • Justin on February 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      Where are you from, Paul? I’m American and we say “on the weekend.” I did, however, mention the British use of “at the weekend” in the video. Thanks for watching and commenting.

  26. tserendorj on February 14, 2014 at 2:46 am

    ready to help from Mongolia

  27. Elisa Montoya on February 14, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Thanks

  28. Preposiciones, ejercicios | Step Up English on February 14, 2014 at 8:12 am

    […] Explicación de Real English (pirámide) The image used is a modification of the The Atonin Time Pyramid from Marcelo Montecinos at phrazzleme.com – See more at: http://reallifebh.com/prepositions-made-easy-in-on-and-at#sthash.ybw00eC9.dpuf […]

  29. Mardiyya El-Hazeema on February 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Paulo Franca I am still a bit confuse about your explanation, sister. Once you said it's better to use "on" for a larger means of transportation i.e.: on a tractor, then in the next comment you said tractor has preposition "in" not "on". Could you tell me the difference between "on tractor" and "in tractor"?. Thanks in advance

  30. Paulo Franca on February 14, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Mardiyya El-Hazeema Hi, Mardiyya. Your BROTHER, Paulo, has the following information for you: if you can stand and move/walk inside a vehicle you can use "on". If you cannot move/walk inside the vehicle you should use "in', instead. So, please use "in" a tractor, not "on". I hope you can move away from your doubts now. Best regards.

  31. Mardiyya El-Hazeema on February 14, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Paulo Franca Oh, Thank you very much for the clarifying explanation, brother. It's really helpful for me. And I'm so sorry to call you "sister", I didn't notice your profile picture and just focused reading your comments so I lost a chance to know you're man. Hopefully you don't mind, brother. Thank you

  32. Hana Jang on February 15, 2014 at 2:55 am

    Thanks a million!

  33. rohani on February 15, 2014 at 6:28 am

    Thank you..I can fly with the students easily now(lol)

  34. Saskia Smeele Ghirotti on February 15, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Thank you for this. You have wonderful diagrams that will be really helpful explaining prepositions to my students. THANK YOU!

  35. Marcio Rodrigues da Silva on February 21, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Thank you for examples of prepositions and words encouragement for we. I am glad and to learned english with you.

  36. Entrega 12 | Learning English Blog on April 11, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    […] English Grammar Review in, on, at  […]

  37. Cristina Serafim on June 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Justin, you're the best! Great video!

  38. Dante Felipe Morán Garzón on July 1, 2014 at 1:49 am

    exellent, thanks a lot

  39. Salva F Az Ot on July 1, 2014 at 7:54 am

    Thanks, it is now easier 🙂

  40. João Alexandre Ribeiro Ribeiro on July 2, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    excellent, all my doubts were taken, tank you.

  41. Teresa Tajar Vela on July 3, 2014 at 2:59 am

    Thank you very much for sharing.

  42. Alfredo Farfán on July 5, 2014 at 5:46 am

    now easier jejeje, Thanks for end I understand the prepositions

  43. Anonymous on August 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I have not found anything better! Thank you so much for your hard work and simple but easy to understand explanation. Can I use your work to teach my students who perpetually find prepositions one of the hardest hurdles to cross over? I'll credit my notes to you though. Please…:)

  44. enteisen on October 7, 2014 at 4:27 am

    Very descriptive post, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part
    2?

  45. Abdul Latif on October 12, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Preposition learn in easy way.

  46. Jaehyun Park on November 12, 2014 at 4:52 am

    Couldn't be more satisfied with lecture when it comes to preposition.

  47. Sandra Makawy on November 27, 2014 at 1:51 am

    amazing , thanks

  48. Helcio Filho on December 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    great!

  49. Abbi Cordero Smith on February 28, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    thank you… I'm from near Seattle also.

  50. Xeb Raxa on March 21, 2015 at 4:21 am

    thats so awesome i was seeking of info like this
    thanks

  51. Jafar Abdusalam on May 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

    it is fantastic and useful

  52. Laurel Archer on May 12, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    I teach English and this is a GREAT way to break it all down! Thanks Real English 🙂

  53. Sohail on August 15, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    very very helpful. thank u sir.

  54. Riptiki on September 29, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    In a millisecond.

  55. Angelica Teach on November 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    I love it!!! Excellent!

  56. Ghulam Fareed on April 24, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    i like it.

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