Russian Language Blog

Perplexing Prepostions: When to Say «в» and When to Say «на»? Posted by on Oct 2, 2009 in language, Soviet Union

Isn’t Russian language a most confusing language? And wouldn’t you agree that the most perplexing part of it all is «предлоги» [pl. prepositions]? If you don’t think so, then take a close look at the picture above (you might have to sneak a peak under the leaves) and read what’s written on the sign: «Приглашаем вас на занятия в наши секции» [(We) invite you to classes in our sections]. Why must one use the preposition «на» together with the word «занятие», while «в» goes together with «секция»? And things become even more perplexing when you put these two words in the same case – «предложный падеж» [prepositional case} – and receive «на занятии» [in class] and «в секции» [in section] and realize that in translation there’s no difference at all…

When finding something in a foreign language that’s different from one’s native language, like the case with «на» and «в» in Russian language, BOTH of which can be translated into English as ‘on’, ‘in’ or ‘at’, one tends to search for a logical rule to help one tell them apart. Now if this had been Swedish language I would have been able give you such a logical rule («на» [Swedish ‘på’] is used when the location is a public space) but I’m afraid it is not. This is Russian and we’ll just have to learn when to say «на» and when to say «в». Today’s post will only discuss these two prepositions in the way they’re used «в предложном падеже» [in prepositional case, also known as locative case (did you see how I just placed the case itself in its OWN case? «Хитро!» [craftily, foxily; intricately!])], even though we’ll remain aware of the fact that BOTH of them can be used «в винительном падеже» [in accusative]. When followed by the accusative these two prepositions describe «движение куда-то» [movement somewhere], like «в библиотеку» [to the library] and «на вечеринку» [to a party] in the following sentence: «Утром пойду в библиотеку, а вечером на вечеринку» [In the morning I’m going to the library, and in the evening to a party]. If you’re talking not about «направление куда-то» [direction somewhere] but want to express «нахождение где-то» [location somewhere] the case you must put to use is «предложный падеж» [prepositional case]. As an easy example we can take the same sentence as above, just changing the verb to «быть» [to be] and its tense to «прошедшее время» [past tense] and look what we have: «Утром я был/а в библиотеке, а вечером на вечеринке» [In the morning I was in the library, and in the evening at a party]. Generally speaking, the question one must ask oneself in order to receive an answer «в предложном падеже» [in prepositional case] is «где?» [where?]. And that’s the question we’ll try our best to answer today: «где?»

When I began today’s post with the declaration that there’s no ‘logical rule’ in Russian for when to use «на» and when to use «в», I might have been a little too harsh. There is no rule that works for ALL words in Russian, but there are some words that are logically united in a rule that they all need one and the same preposition when expressing location. All four cardinal directions in Russian use the preposition «на»:

«на западе» – [in the west].

«на востоке» – [in the east].

«а севере» – [in the north].

«на юге» – [in the south].

In the same way some certain geographical places within the Russian Federation are always connected with a particular preposition, either «на» like in…

«на Кавказе» – [in the Caucasus].

«на Дальнем Востоке» – [in the Far East].

«на Урале» – [in the Urals].

…or «в» in the following:

«в Крыму» – [in the Crimea].

«в Сибири» – [in Siberia].

Sometimes prepositions connected with geographical places in Russian language can mark a conscious political standpoint. Does that sound strange to you? Well, believe it or not, but I’m of course talking about whether you say «на Украине» [in (the) Ukraine] or «в Украине» [in Ukraine]. A simplified explanation of this way of expressing one’s political views is that «на Украине» makes Ukraine merely a province (this preposition was used predominantly «в совковие времена» [in Soviet times]), whereas «в Украине» gives Ukraine the status of an independent, sovereign state.

Other than this (let’s have an entire post of its own to discuss means of transportation in Russian and the fact that the preposition used for ALL of them is «на», now shall we?) we all have to study each and every word of Russian language separately in order to find out which preposition is used with it. Usually, «слава Богу» [thank God], this is marked in dictionaries. But just so you’ll have a head start, here are some of the most common words «в предложном падеже» [in prepositional case]. Pay attention!

«в школе» – [in school].

«на уроке» – [in class].

«в университете» – [in the university].

«на факультете» – [in the faculty].

«в институте» – [in the institute].

«на занятиях» – [in classes].

«в магазине» – [in the shop; store; magazine].

«на работе» – [at work].

«в конторе» – [in the office].

«на заводе» – [in the factory; mill; plant; works].

«в музее» – [in the museum].

«на фабрике» – [in the factory; mill; plant].

«в министерстве» – [in the ministry; government department; office].

«на почте» – [in the post office].

«в библиотеке» – [in the library].

«на вокзале» – [on the (railroad) station].

«в банке» – [in the bank].

«на концерте» – [in a concert].

«в театре» – [in the theater].

«в кино» – [in the movie theater; in movies; at the movies]

«во дворе» – [in the courtyard].

«на дворе» – [‘outside’].

«на родине» – [in the motherland; one’s home and native land may also be spelled with a capital letter: «на Родине»].

«в ресторане» – [in the restaurant].

«на пратике» – [in practice].

«в теории» – [in theory].

«в колхозе» – [in the ‘kolkhoz’ – this word is short for «коллективное хозяйство» meaning collective farm].

«на войне» – [in war].

«в деревне» – [in the village or in the country].

«на свободе» – [in freedom].

«в небе» – [in the sky].

Okay, so that was what I could come up with today. Now it’s your turn. What common words did I forget in my list above? Tell me! As always especially welcome are «несклоняемые существительные» [indeclinable nouns], like «в метро», something that could mean ‘to the metro/subway’ as well as ‘in the metro/subway’

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  1. Ryan:

    Is my intuition that one might say на горе but в горах correct?

  2. Martti Mäkelä:

    A phrase from my elementary modern Russian book by Peter Norman

    “в реке рыбa, a на реке лодкa”,

    in the river the fish, but on the river the boat…

  3. Chris Jones:

    In my experience, в is used when it is a physical location and на is used with abstract concepts. Which is why it’s в классе but на уроке. Class is a physical location but a lesson is a more abstract location.

    And in your example about the Ukraine, some etymology of the word Украине. It comes from the word meaning borderland. Therefore, to take away it’s sovereign status (as Putin does) when speaking you can be на Украине, since to be on the borderland is more of an abstract concept. But you are always в when in a country (like Medvedev does).

  4. john jaklich:


  5. David:

    I love this blog! Thank you so much for your work. One suggestion — no italics! I find them so hard to read, I tend to just skip over them. Thanks!

  6. Karyn:

    Hi Josefina!

    I just recently found this blog and I really like it! This is another great lesson.

    Just one tiny suggestion from me as well 🙂
    In the list of examples, group the “B”s together and the “HA”s together – a little easier to memorize that way.


  7. kisha:

    To shed some light on in Ukraine/in the Ukraine. According to the norms of Russian codiefied language it is grammatically correct to say НА Украине. These norms are the source for dictionaries and coursebooks and being reveiwed every few years. When using в Украине becomes a norm (which means it would as widely used by the speakers as на Украине) this will be reflected in the list of the norms of the modern Russian language first and then in dictionaries along with the old norm на Украине.

  8. Jonathan:

    I was taught that as a general rule, you can divide в and на words into activities and locations typically done inside versus outside. В can only be used for inside things, but на might be in or out, or might have historically been an outdoor activity that we now consider indoor. For example, занятие used to refer to classes that didn’t need to be in a building. They could have been held out in a courtyard or in a field.

    Now for certain abstractions this kind of falls apart, e.g. в теории vs на практике. For these I use a little trick, like you theorize inside but you could possibly do practice outdoors.

    Hopefully this helps.