English Language Blog

English prepositions – at, by, in, on Posted by on Jul 19, 2016 in English Grammar

This post offers an overview of four common English prepositions and how they are used when talking about time, transportation, and location.

Image by Josie Elderslie on Flickr.com licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Image by Josie Elderslie on Flickr.com licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I am sure you see and use these four prepositions all the time. Prepositions are tricky for a lot of people – they can be hard to learn to use correctly as they are used so differently in different languages. Here I am going to present an overview with some general rules for the use of the prepositions in, on, at, and by. As I say, I am presenting general rules, there are exceptions to these rules, but if you can study these generalities you will have a pretty good idea of how to use these four prepositions most of the time. Over time you will learn about the exceptions to these guidelines as you learn to use these prepositions in context.

So, let’s get started…

Prepositions are often used when talking about time (i.e. in two weeks), location (i.e. by the store), and transportation (i.e. on the plane), so I am going to focus on these three areas here.

When talking about time you can use: in, on, at, by

at: this  is used when talking about a specific time (usually including the hour and minutes)
Be there at 12:15.

on: this is used when talking about days of the week
Let’s meet on Tuesday.

in: this is used when talking about long periods of time, like weeks, months, and years
In 2015 we went to China.
I am quitting my job in a few weeks.

by: this is used when talking about the end of a specific time (hours, weeks, months, years)
I need to finish my report by the end of the week.
I will be leaving by 11:00; if you want to ride with me be ready by then.

When talking about location you can use: in, on, at, by

at: this is used for talking about a specific point or location
Let’s meet at the corner of Main and Elm streets.

on: this is used when talking about a defined area (either small or large), but not a specific point; when using ‘on’ the item remains visible and above the surface
Put it on my desk.
Stand on the table.

in: this is used when talking about an object going inside a container of any kind (i.e. with walls or some sort of surrounding); when using ‘in’ the item no longer remains visible from all sides
Put it in the basket.
I dove in the ocean. (Think of the land as being the container of the ocean.)

by: this is used when there is an object you are referencing in relation to a location and you want to indicate nearness or closeness
Stand by your partner.
My house is by the bus stop.

When talking about the way you travel you can use: on, in, and by

on: this is used when talking about using a train, bus, plane, boat, bike, or feet to get around
We traveled on the train for five hours.
I flew on a plane to Morocco.
He rides on his bike to commute to work.
She came on foot.

in: this is used when talking about using a taxi or car to get around
They drove in a car to the store.

by: this is used when talking about how you got somewhere using a plane, train, bus, boat, bike, or by foot
James came to the conference by plane. I live locally so I came by bike.

I hope this little overview of how to use on, in, by, and at was helpful.

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


  1. wilder:

    Thanks for everything!
    I’m english student.
    Well, I need a little help about this “I wish to talk to. Bla bla bla” what is “to” doing there that is after the word talk.