When to use “on” and when to use “in”

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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Nate asks: What are the proper usages of the words “in” and “on” in a sentence? I often confuse the two. Here are some examples: “The boat is in/on the water,” “We are in/on the planet,” “We’re going to the concert in/on July 1st.”

The use of prepositions in English is frequently idiomatic. General guidelines exist, but be prepared to learn individual expressions in which the preposition does not adhere to the guidelines.

In the case of the prepositions in and on, here are the most usual uses.

In

in mainly denotes “rest at”:

PLACE: He lives in the country. He lives in Chicago. (BUT, He lives at 2300 Wabash Ave.)
TIME: I’ll be there in an hour.
MANNER: The child ran down the steps in tears.
REFERENCE: In my opinion we need a referendum. They are happy in their marriage.

On

on indicates proximity and position above or outside:

PLACE: He sat on the fence.
TIME: He was not thinking well on that occasion.
REFERENCE: He asked my opinion on the matter.
CONDITION: We’ll hire him on your recommendation.

The examples given in the question:

We are on the planet.
We are going to the concert on July 1.

But

We are going to the concert in July.

As for the example about the boat, either is correct, according to what is meant:

The boat is in the water. (As opposed to being on dry land for the winter)
The boat is on the water. (Look at all those boats out there on the water!)

However, it would be unidiomatic to say The ship is in the ocean or in the sea, unless you mean that it has sunk. The ship is on the sea.

Related to the question of when to use in is that of when to use into. While in denotes the state of being “at rest” in a place, or at least being (in a sense) surrounded by something, into denotes motion towards:

The dog jumped into the water.
The children (who were already in the water) jumped in the water.

When deciding whether to use in or into, ask yourself if the person or thing you are talking about is moving from one place to another. If so, use into.

More about prepositions in later posts. Stay tuned!

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138 Responses to “When to use “on” and when to use “in””

  • Ramkarthik

    Very good and clear explanation. I never pick up the difference between these words. Now I think I have got it almost. I wish I knew it before itself. At least I would have got 5 more marks in the English Grammar Exercise. Thanks for the post Maeve.

  • Dj Flush

    Honestly Daniel that was one great tip. I myself face the problem of deciding where to use on and where to use in but this post summed it up quite well.

    Thanks a lot

  • temp

    I don’t really get the in/on part for TIME, I must use in if im refeering to a specific time, or for the rest of cases, right?

  • Maeve

    I’m not sure what “temp” is asking. Perhaps a few more TIME expressions will help:
    in a minute
    in twenty minutes
    in two shakes of a lamb’s tail
    in a flash
    on the Fourth of July
    on my birthday
    It may be necessary to memorize the more common usages. As I mentioned in the post, prepositional usage is often idiomatic and difficult to pin down.

  • Sally

    I don’t think I’ve ever been told what a prepositions is. At least I don’t remember.

    Please explain Preposition. Sorry I’m lost at paragraph 2.

  • Daniel

    Sally, prepositions are words that connect nouns and explain their relationship with other words. Here are some examples:

    with
    at
    by
    to
    in
    for
    from
    of
    on

  • Charles

    On an email listserv, someone asked, why do we say:

    “In the Army but on a soccer team
    In a political party but on a staff”

    Any suggestions?

  • Daniel

    “The use of prepositions in English is frequently idiomatic. General guidelines exist, but be prepared to learn individual expressions in which the preposition does not adhere to the guidelines.”

    I am sure if there are any explanations for the cases you mentioned in particular.

  • Jay Wagers

    Prepositions are simple if you understand that they only function to show relationships. Here is how I explain them to my students (college freshmen and sophmores).

    I grab a chair and position myself:

    I can be beside the chair, behind the chair, by the chair, and beyond the chair.

    I can be in front of the chair, in the chair, and on the chair.

    If I have some weird obsession, I could be into the chair.

    I can be under the chair and, if somehow melted together and remade, of the chair.

    If the chair is one if my parents, I am from the chair. However, I could move away from the chair.

    I could walk to the chair. I could stare at the chair. I could move towards the chair.

    I could walk around the chair. I could be above the chair. I could feel certain feelings about the chair.

    I could make many more examples. However, that’s not the point.

    Regarding the question, the word in denotes that the noun is consumed by the object of the preposition . The word on denotes that the noun is above or atop.

  • francesco mapelli

    I still don’t get the

    He was not thinking well on that occasion.

    why is “in” wrong here?

  • Zach Everson

    Great timing–I just heard a clip of Joe Biden on NPR in which he used “on” when he meant “in.”

  • Amy W.

    I’ve never personally experienced any confusion about On and In, but a friend of mine makes me laugh with her usage, which I suspect is dialectic. If she is seated indoors without benefit of chair or other support, she claims to be sitting “in” the floor.

    It always triggers a joke from my husband about a man who is instructed to “Get on the plane.” The man’s response: “Forget that–you get on the plane! I’m getting in the plane.”

  • Roswell Ward

    Is it “We participated in a field trip.” or “We participated on a field trip.”?

  • Maeve

    Roswell,
    “participated in a field trip”
    But you’d “go on a field trip.”

  • Chess

    What about these:
    “We will go to the beach on Monday” or “We will go to the beach Monday”?
    “Monday mom baked a pie” or “On Monday mom baked a pie”?

  • Katty

    Is it: “his picture was on the paper” or “his picture was in the paper”

  • Maeve

    His picture was in the paper. (if the picture was printed in the paper.)

    If a photo just happened to be lying around, it might end up “on the paper”!

  • Annette

    When did the rule about ending the sentence with a preposition change? It’s always been one of my pet peeves (in written word more than spoken) because we learned it was wrong in high school grammar…. but now I’m reading that it’s acceptable?

  • Maeve

    Annette,
    Your question deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned.

  • Fabgrandma

    My question is about using into and in to. When you are talking about someone who has committed a crime, do they turn themselves “into” the police, or in to the police? Is there a difference? The first one always makes me think of the person as a magician.

  • Maeve

    Fabgrandma,
    The wanted persons would turn themselves in to the police.

    They would jump into the water.

    See my article on http://www.dailywritingtips.com/me-myself-and-i/

  • Carlos K

    Hello. I understand the correct forms are “in May” and “on May 3rd”, but I can not decide between “In December 2007” and “On December 2007”.

  • Maeve

    Carlos,
    You would use “on” only if the day as well as the month is specificed:

    Ex.
    I visited Paris in December 2007.

    On December 3 (or “on December 3, 2007”), I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

  • Carlos K

    Thank you very much… I’ll follow that tip.

  • Ram

    My daughter will be going to college in two years from now. Is this grammatically correct. Or the sentence should be without ” in”

  • yoni

    Hi there! I too struggle a lot on how to use “on” and “in” in a sentence,don’t know if “in a sentence is correct”,does it?. Until now I’m still confuse, but at least I know now that it is idiomatic and there is a general guidelines exist on using them.. By the way does anyone knows how to use has, had, and have? I know their meanings but sometimes I just don’t know when to use them, like for example; I have done that or I had done that, I know that “had done that means I already did it, but what about “have done”?Like most of the time people uses “have”even though I think “had” is more appropriate to use beacause they are talking about the past. I hope you guys can contribute facts and ideas towards my inquiries. Like everyone else I like to uprgrade my grammar. Thanks.

  • migs

    how about this: “The motivation for this lies IN the need” or is it “The motivation for this lies ON the need”? (I just capitalized IN and ON to stress my point)

  • toto

    “The wanted persons would turn themselves in to the police.”

    I understand how people get confused as to when to use “into” and “in” here. There shouldn’t be any confusion once you know the verb is “turn in”, not “turn into”? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    They turned themselves in. To whom? To the police. English as a second language here so I could be wrong.

    I too get laughed at at the incorrect usage of “in” and “on”. Even after reading the explanations above, I don’t get them as they don’t make sense all the time for me. Spanish as a first language here.

  • Jm

    Yoni, here is my try. Not a grammar guru though.

    Have = present
    Had = past

    Done = past participle

    1. Hey Mark, have you done what I asked you to do?

    1. Yes Louis, I have done what asked me to do.

    2. Hey Mark, you told me you had (THEN) done what I asked you to do!

    2. Yes silly, I had told you yesterday that I had (THEN) done what you asked me to do. What’s wrong with you man! 🙂

    If you are a Spanish speaker,

    Have = he, has, ha, han, hemos (yo he hecho, conjuga el resto)
    Had = habia, habias, habiamos, habian (yo habia hecho, conjuga el resto)

    Anything I’m getting wrong please let me know.

  • Maeve

    Ram,
    My daughter will be going to college in two years from now.

    You can get away with the “in.” I would omit it and say My daughter will be going to college two years from now.

  • Maeve

    Yoni,
    You asked for help, so I’m going to point out more than one thing here.
    1. “in a sentence” is correct.
    2. I don’t know if “in a sentence” is correct, does it? should be I don’t know if “in a sentence” is correct, is it?
    3. I’m still confuse. (the “ed” is necessary I’m still confused.)
    4. “have” and “had”: the use of these helping verbs to form past tenses is explained: here. The main thing to remember is that “had done” describes an action that took place before some other action in the past. Ex. I had dropped the crate before I heard the warning.

  • Maeve

    Toto,
    Good tip. “turn in” is one of those verb phrases so common in English.

    If one said “The criminal turned himself into the police,” the meaning would be that the crimnal was a shape shifter!

  • Maeve

    Migs
    “The motivation for this lies IN the need.”

  • Maeve

    Jm,
    I have only two comments on your otherwise excellent examples.

    1. Yes Louis, I have done what asked me to do. — I have done what you asked me to do. (just a typo, I expect.)

    2. Yes silly, I had told you yesterday that I had (THEN) done what you asked me to do. — The “had” is not necessary in the first clause: “I told you yesterday that I had done what you asked me to do.”

  • Zan

    use in with bodies of water, use on with surfaces.

  • jm

    Thank you for correcting me Maeve.

  • jm

    I typed a message “in” his website or “on” his website?

  • lavanya

    Hi..

    am still confused abt IN & ON..

    I wrote a test on Arrays. or
    I wrote a test in Arrays.

    Here Arrays is a topic of the subject.

  • Maeve

    lavanya,
    I wrote a test on Arrays. or
    I wrote a test in Arrays.

    Two things-
    In English we say “I took a test.” “I wrote a paper.”
    The test was on Arrays. I wrote a paper on Arrays.
    I took a course in Arrays.

    What the heck is “Arrays”?

  • R. V.

    Please tell me if you say:

    I have a stain on my shirt or I have a stain in my shirt.
    My daughter’s teacher corrected the sentence by putting “in” instead of “on”. I still think it’s “on”.

  • R. V.

    Please tell me if you say:

    I have a stain on my shirt or I have a stain in my shirt.
    My daughter’s teacher corrected the sentence by putting “in” instead of “on”. I still think it’s “on”.

  • Maeve

    R.V.
    You’re correct. The idiom is “I have a stain on my shirt.”

    Is the teacher an American speaker?

  • Jim

    Just checking but I’m correct when I say the following, right?

    Nowadays, you’ll find thinner and lighter notebooks available ON the market.

    This morning, I went downtown and couldn’t find any fresh bass AT the market. [When would you say IN the market?]

    The bank carries heavier losses on its books than we thought.

    In his book, the author writes about his troubled childhood.

    All the material needed to study for the test can be found in this textbook.

  • Maeve

    Jim,
    You could say “I’m in the market for a new car,” i.e., you are considering a purchase.

  • R. V.

    Maeve:

    What is your background? Are you an English teacher by any chance? Thanks for the tip. BTW, the teacher is not an american teacher.

  • R. V.

    BTW, the sentence that my daughter wrote was actually:

    “The stain on my shirt won’t come off”. Would it still be correct to write it that way or to write it this way: “The stain in my shirt won’t come off” ?

  • Maeve

    R.V.
    You’ve got it! English teacher to the core. I’ve taught at every level from beginning reading to university. One of my undergraduate English degrees is from the University of London and I have a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Currently I channel my need to teach into DWT and my own site http://www.AmericanEnglishDoctor.com/ Please drop in.

  • Maeve

    R.V.
    RE: “The stain on my shirt won’t come off”

    In this case it would be possible to say that the stain is IN the shirt, BUT then it would be necessary to say

    “The stain in my shirt won’t come out.”

  • Jim

    Maeve,

    Thanks for answering. Are the rest of the sentences that I wrote correct? What about the following:

    Financial derivatives are becoming more widely used IN the stock market these days.

  • Maeve

    Jim,
    The sentences in your earlier post are correct.

    “Financial derivatives are becoming more widely used IN the stock market these days.” Yes, this use of “in” is also correct.

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