Some guid­ance on the use of the Prepo­si­tions “on” and “in”

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Sev­eral read­ers have asked me to give them guid­ance on when it is proper to use the lo­ca­tional prepo­si­tions “in” and “on” in cer­tain fixed ex­pres­sions. They asked to know the dif­fer­ence be­tween “in bed” and “on the bed,” be­tween “in the train” and “on the train,” be­tween “in the street” and “on the street,” be­tween “in the bus” and “on the bus,” be­tween “on the air­plane” and “in the air­plane,” etc. This week’s col­umn an­swers th­ese ques­tions.

1. “In bed” ver­sus “on the bed.” “In bed” is the con­ven­tional ex­pres­sion in Stan­dard English to in­di­cate that one is sleep­ing or is about to sleep, as in, “By 8:30 p.m. all the chil­dren should be in bed.” The ex­pres­sion can also mean sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, as in, “He is good in bed.” “In bed with” is also used metaphor­i­cally to in­di­cate un­de­sir­able, of­ten con­spir­a­to­rial, close­ness, as in, “Jour­nal­ists are in bed with cor­rupt politi­cians.”

“On the bed,” on the other hand, merely in­di­cates one’s lo­ca­tion in re­la­tion to a bed. (Note that, un­like “in bed,” you can’t dis­pense with the def­i­nite ar­ti­cle “the” in the ex­pres­sion “on the bed.”) For in­stance, some­one can sit “on the bed” or “lie on the bed,” which merely in­di­cates the per­son’s po­si­tion on the bed. It doesn’t con­vey the sense that the per­son is sleep­ing or is about to sleep.

In sum, use “in bed” for sleep­ing, sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, and un­de­sir­able close­ness, and “on the bed” to con­vey the sense of be­ing on top of the blan­kets of a bed- with no in­ten­tion to sleep.

2. “In the street” ver­sus “on the street.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween “in the street” and “on the street” isn’t as straight­for­ward as that be­tween “in bed” and “on the bed.” Many na­tive speak­ers in­ter­change the ex­pres­sions. But here is what the sen­si­tive user of the lan­guage needs to know.

“In the street” is an older, more es­tab­lished ex­pres­sion than “on the street” when ref­er­ence is to the roads and pub­lic places of a vil­lage, town, or city in the ab­stract sense, as in, “I like to go for a walk in the street ev­ery week­end.” In this ex­am­ple, “street” isn’t spe­cific to any iden­ti­fi­able pub­lic road. “On the street” tends to be ap­pro­pri­ate for oc­ca­sions when the spe­cific lo­ca­tion of a street is im­por­tant, as in, “we live on the same street.”

The truth, though, is that in mod­ern us­age, both ex­pres­sions can be, and of­ten are, used in place of the other. My own pref­er­ence is “in the street.”

How about the id­iom “man in the street” to rep­re­sent the hy­po­thet­i­cal ev­ery­day per­son who is a non-ex­pert? Should it be “man on the street”? Well, both ex­pres­sions are now usu­ally in­ter­changed in pop­u­lar us­age, and there is no rea­son to chafe at this. In fact, many pres­ti­gious dic­tio­nar­ies ac­knowl­edge the in­ter­change­abil­ity of the ex­pres­sions. It helps to know, though, that “man in the street” is the older form of the ex­pres­sion, and cur­rent us­age still prefers it to “man on the street.” A search on Google brought nearly 1.5 bil­lion hits for “man in the street” but only 547 mil­lion hits for “man on the street.”

How­ever, ev­i­dence from the British Na­tional Cor­pus and the Cor­pus of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can English shows strong re­gional and di­alec­tal vari­a­tions in the use of th­ese ex­pres­sions. “Man in the street” en­joys more pop­u­lar­ity and ac­cep­tance than “man on the street” in British English. I found only five hits for “man on the street” in the British Na­tional Cor­pus. Of the five hits, only one us­age is id­iomatic. The only other id­iomatic us­age puts it in quo­ta­tion marks and makes it clear that it’s an Amer­i­can us­age (“I wish a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the Amer­i­can print me­dia would present an open un­bi­ased, in­for­ma­tive ‘Man on the street’ is­sue, such as you did.”) The three other uses re­fer to a man on a spe­cific street.

The Cor­pus of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can English shows a pref­er­ence for “man on the street” but not by the wide mar­gin we saw be­tween “man in the street” and “man on the street” in the British Na­tional Cor­pus. It seems safe to say that “man on the street” first ap­peared in Amer­i­can English and hasn’t quite be­come pop­u­lar in British English.

The On­line Ety­mol­ogy Dic­tio­nary says the first recorded use of “man in the street” to mean the or­di­nary per­son dates back to 1831. “Man on the street,” on the hand, the Mer­riam-Web­ster Dic­tio­nary says, dates back to only 1926.

It is also im­por­tant to note that “on the streets” (note the plu­ral) means be­ing home­less (as in, “if you don’t pay your rent you will be on the streets”) or work­ing as a pros­ti­tute (as in, “The govern­ment should de­vise poli­cies to pro­tect the girls on the streets in our cities.”)

“On the street” (note that there is no plu­ral) can also mean “with­out a job, un­em­ployed, as in ‘Af­ter she lost her job at the min­istry she was on the street for three years,’” es­pe­cially in Amer­i­can English. The Amer­i­can Her­itage Idioms Dic­tio­nary says this id­iom is at­tested from the “first half of 1900s.”

3. “On the train” ver­sus “in the train.” When you’re trav­el­ing by means of a train, you say you’re “on the train.” That’s the fixed, con­ven­tional ex­pres­sion to use in all na­tive va­ri­eties of English. Be­ing “in the train” in­di­cates your po­si­tion in re­la­tion to the train (that is, that you’re in­side it), not the fact of your trav­el­ing by it.

Note that this is dif­fer­ent from the id­iomatic ex­pres­sion “in the train of,” which is syn­ony­mous with “in the wake of,” as in, “many peo­ple were ren­dered home­less in the train of the mas­sive flood.” Also note that “in train” is an­other fixed phrase that means “wellor­ga­nized”

How­ever, ev­i­dence from the British Na­tional Cor­pus and the Cor­pus of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can English shows strong re­gional and di­alec­tal vari­a­tions in the use of th­ese ex­pres­sions.

or “in progress,” as in, “The re­port of the re­cently con­cluded na­tional con­fer­ence is in train.”

In short, in trans­porta­tional con­texts, “on the train” is the pre­ferred ex­pres­sion.

4. “On the bus” ver­sus “in the bus.” The us­age rules here are sim­i­lar to the pre­ced­ing one. It should be “on the bus” when you use the ex­pres­sion in a trans­porta­tional con­text. “In the bus” is never ap­pro­pri­ate when used in re­la­tion to transportation. It may only be used to show lo­ca­tion, such as be­ing in­side the bus.

You also you get “on an air­plane,” not “in an air­plane.” The same rule ap­plies to bi­cy­cle. You ride “on a bi­cy­cle.”

5. “In the car” ver­sus “on the car.” Here the rule is re­versed. You are “in a car” if you’re trav­el­ing by it. When you’re “on a car,” it means you’re on top of it. You also get “in a taxi,” not “on a taxi.”

A good way to help the reader re­mem­ber when it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to use “in” or “on” in re­la­tion to a means of transportation is to note the prepo­si­tions we use to get out of the means of transportation. You get “out” of a car. So you get “in” it. You get “off ” a train. So you get “on” it. We say “in and out” but “on and off.”

Some Prepo­si­tions

If this col­umn isn’t very help­ful in its dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of “on” and “in,” it’s be­cause English prepo­si­tions are no­to­ri­ously tricky and ar­bi­trary. You can’t mas­ter their us­age by hold­ing on to a uni­ver­sal syn­tac­tic logic. You just need to learn their us­age through read­ing good books and ar­ti­cles or by lis­ten­ing to the speech pat­terns of na­tive speak­ers.

In some cases, prepo­si­tional us­age can be fluid, per­mis­sive, and in­flected by di­alec­tal choices (such as is the case with “in the street” and “on the street”), but in other con­texts their us­age is fixed in mean­ing and con­text (such as in the use of “on” or “in” in re­la­tion to trans­porta­tional ac­tiv­i­ties). Thoughts on

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