The Right Prepositions for Geographical Designations

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The idiomatic idiosyncrasies among references to one’s relationship to geographical or topographical features make selecting the correct preposition a challenge for nonnative speakers, but even those born to English can stumble. This post discusses various classes of phrasing about location.

One lives in a town or city, county, state, or nation but on a continent. One writes of one’s residence in a neighborhood or district, but a reference to a side of a city (Chicago’s North Side or New York City’s East Side, for example) is oriented with on. If one lives virtually or literally in the shadow of an imposing natural or artificial edifice, however, one might say that one lives beneath Telegraph Hill or works under the Gateway Arch. If one is referring to some point past one’s current location or another reference point, one might say that the place in question is, for example, below Broadway, even though no change in altitude is involved.

In topographical contexts, the preposition depends on the position: One lives in the foothills or in the mountains, even though, presumably, one is not a cave dweller, or in a canyon or valley. But one lives, or stands, on the hillside or mountainside — or on the hilltop or the mountaintop — or on the valley floor. These distinctions apply to proper names, too: One vacations in the Catskills or backpacks in the Rockies, but one stands on Spyglass Hill (though one can either hike on or up it).

One drives on or along a street, road, or highway, but one takes a turn at an intersection or exits at (or onto) an off-ramp.

“In the sea” and “under the sea” refer to being or traveling beneath the surface of the ocean. However, on, just as on land, is the correct preposition for references to surface travel, though one might also refer to coursing along or over a sea route. One also moves on, along, or over a lake or another body of water, although on also applies to one’s position in reference to a coast, shoreline, or bank, as when visiting friends who live on the ocean, staying at a campsite on a lake, or having a house on a river.

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18 thoughts on “The Right Prepositions for Geographical Designations”

  1. Here’s one for you. I was born and raised in the Twin Cities area (Minnesota). We have always referred to living on the North or South side of Minneapolis as over North, or over South. It’s funny because it didn’t dawn on me how wrong it is until I left for the military. When I got back, I kept hearing “I’m going over North” or “He lives over South”. I have no idea how that started, but thought that I would share.

    Thanks for the great post.


  2. Interesting, as always — I grew up ‘in’ Long Island, a (huge!) suburb of New York City, and we could always tell — still can, come to that — when someone was ‘not from around here’ because they would say they lived ‘on’ Long Island.

    In New York, theater produced outside the mainstream has for many years been described as ‘off-Broadway.’ (Not sure about the initial-cap requirement there…) As production values and costs soared, and even off-Broadway — a noun, by this time — took on a tinge of the petit-bourgeois and began to attract out-of-towners and tourists, the avant-garde moved ‘off-off-Broadway,’ a location that was hip as long as it was still in Manhattan.

    And if you lived in Brooklyn (as I did), you never went ‘to Manhattan,’ although you might commute ‘to the city’ every day — you might even work (again, as I did) ‘in Wall Street.’ Parts of Brooklyn where years ago only the terminally foolhardy were wont to wander are of course now occupied by legions of the young and terminally hip. I find myself somewhat ‘at sea’ among such.

  3. You live ON a continent? Really?

    I certainly don’t live ON Europe, or even on the continent of Europe; I live IN Europe, just as I live in England.

  4. At sea is also used for sailing on the sea, as in ‘Columbus was at sea for 3 weeks before they sighted land.’

    Being ‘at sea’ as Mary implied can also have a totally different meaning, nothing to do with the sea.

  5. “On lives in a town or city, county, state, or nation, but on a continent.”

    You omitted the fact that one lives on, and events happen on, islands.
    I have seen articles that were apparently written by professional journalists that said “in Maui”, “in Elba”, “in Guam”, “in Java”, “in Long Island”, etc., when it should have been “on Maui”, “on Elba”, “on Guam”, “on Java”, “on Long Island”, etc.

    You also omitted counties, which someone lives “in”.

    Then there is the complication that these islands are also countries, counties, or states: Great Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Cuba, Jamaica, Tasmania (a state of Australia), the Big Island of Hawaii (Hawaii County), Staten Island, and Ceylon (no matter that the name of the country has been changed rather arbitrarily).

    Also, the official name of the government of Oahu is “The City and County of Honolulu”, and this includes various islets as well as large island of Oahu. Still “on Oahu” is still valid. Kauai County consists of more than one island, and so does Maui County, which includes Molokai, Lanai, and others, as well as the big island of Maui, the second-largest island in the State of Hawaii.

    Furthermore, the Borough of Manhattan is also New York County, New York, and these two entities contain various islets, such as Liberty Island, and well as the larger Island of Manhattan. Still, people live on islands, but in countries, and presumbly in boroughs, too: in Brooklyn, in Queens, and in The Bronx.

  6. I copied and pasted the word “On”, which should have been “One”.
    Mr. Daniel Scocco needs to proofread more carefully.

  7. To Mary’s list of New York idioms, I’d add one that relates to non-specific geography. When New Yorkers talk about queuing up at a ticket booth or food counter, they tend to say they’re waiting “on line.” Elsewhere, the preferred usage seems to be “in line.”

  8. Why don’t we do it in the road? No one will be watching us . . .

    The British have this odd (to us) usage. One of the chapters of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was titled “In the Chobham Road,” and I could never get over how wrong that sounded. Up to the knees in pavement? But it makes sense if you consider “In” to mean [within the boundaries of], just as we might say, “He’s in the park.”

    I’m on the road, but you’re slowing me down, so you’re in the road. Get out of my way.

  9. Other Brit v. US usages — ‘in hospital’ (Brit), ‘in the’ hospital (US) — ‘in’ college (US) — ‘at’ college (Brit — or am I making that one up?)

  10. Yes, and in NYC, where I’ve lived for only seven years, I’m always surprised when people say “I’ll be in (not on) Staten Island.” Perhaps, it’s so-called because it’s a borough. On the other hand, people say they’re “on Long Island.” I’m speculating that it’s because LI is an island that contains two boroughs, but isn’t one.

  11. @Mary – No. you’re not making it up – for us it’s in hospital, at university / college / school / church etc (unless you work there, perhaps). And I think you also make a very important point about idiomatic use: you can make some general rules, but there will always be exceptions, and the best guide is custom.

    @C – I agree. We only use ON when we specifically use the word continent. “Britain is in Europe, but people on the continent think differently about Europe to us.”

    @Chobham – Yes, we Brits usually say I live “in” such-and-such-a street, not “on” such-and-such-a street, although it’s not exclusive. But then we also talk about playing in the street (i.e. in the road). And we live in a neighbourhood, but on a housing estate. So we’re not terribly consistent.

    By the way, do Americans go up to Washington D.C. or their state capitals, like we traditionally go up to London, even if we’re coming South. This is also sometimes used for studying at Oxford and Cambridge universities – He’s going up to Oxford in the Autumn (i.e. starting his studies). He’s up at Cambridge (he’s studying there).

  12. Idiomatic usage is always interesting. Where I’m from, we always used the terms “up-down”, “above-below” in direct relation to the cardinal directions on a map, with N at the top. So you always went “up to” somewhere north of you, “down to” somewhere south of you, and “over to” a point east or west. Likewise, Tennessee is right “above” Alabama, and England is below Scotland. Locally, if you were on 4th St, “just below” Vance Ave, you were just south of where the intersection of the 2 would be. I always figured this was standard everywhere until I was an adult and experienced other places.

    The most confusing confrontation was when I first heard Maine referred to as Down east, when it is up north from almost everywhere the term is used! I still don’t know where that appellation come from, but it’s very old. To Warsaw Will, no, we would only go “up to” Washington if we were geographically south of it.

    And exception to all that, I guess, would be the terms “downtown” and “uptown” which didn’t have cartographic implications, but were colloquialisms for the function or nature of the part of city in question (e.g, the business district) that were used somewhat inconsistently.

  13. And, DAW, Australia is an island, a country AND a continent – we live IN Australia!

    To diverge a little, most Australians still see the world from a UK point of view – “the Continent” is the continent of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean is the “Middle East” and China/Japan is the “Far East” (even though they are closer than the UK and geographically to our north). When we talk of “countries to our north,” most Aussies think of South-East Asia.

    India-and-Pakistan are, especially for cricket-fans, “the sub-continent” – no further modifier is deemed necessary.

    English has always been inconsistent in relation to position vis-à-vis thoroughfares. It seems to me that whether something is ‘in’ or ‘on’ a particular thoroughfare depends on the thoroughfare’s breadth – itself a subjective criterion. By and large, I would venture that Australians hew to “in,” but I won’t go to the barricades to defend that surmise. Usages such as “on Pitt Street” or “on Wisteria Lane” are taking hold here but they sound vaguely pretentious (to me) – it may *just* work for a high fashion boutique “on Northbourne Avenue,” but it fails for an auto repair shop in an industrial suburb. Incidentally, in the early C20, the editor of the New York Times excoriated the ‘on’ usage as ‘barbarous’!

    @Curtis re “on/in the road”
    A favourite Soviet song of the post-WWII period was “V Put’ – On the Road (often translated “On the March”).” It is still sung in capitalist Russia – I saw a recently-made album on which the title was translated as “IN the Road” (such a change from just one lil letter!).

    And Warsaw Will has already pointed out that people “go up” to London and students “go up” to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but “go down” – or are “sent down” (kicked out of the universities) – to their homes. This has nothing to do with map directions, but is more like “going up” to the podium in church or synagogue (Jews also “go up” to Israel). Both my Australian and my British grandparents would speak of “going up to town” – not “the town” (the nearest large settlement).

    We Australians go TO school / university / hospital – we are AT school / university or IN hospital.

    In some areas of Australia, a senior secondary school is called a ‘college’ – because of the novelty of the institution, students will sometimes copy US idiom and speak of being IN college.

  14. @ Sally: And, DAW, Australia is an island, a country AND a continent – we live IN Australia!

    Actually, if I remember corrrectly, Australia is NOT, technically speaking, an island, BECAUSE it is a continent. Likewise Antarctica.

    In America place-name terms are also used that don’t geographically make sense from where we are. We, too, call China and Japan the Far East– even tho most would go west or even north, now, to get there; while the “Near East” is farther away, and “between” the Far and the Middle. Why Europeans use ME and Near East as they do I’m not sure. It obviously makes no sense from their POV, either. We don’t refer to “the continent” like Brits do. It’s simply Europe. The whether or not we think of Britain as part of or near to Europe depends on the context.

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