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I was trying to work out why get in car but on most other transportation systems.

Get in a car, helicopter

Get on a train, plane, boat (although in feels like it works ok here)

Is it the size of vehicle? The function (private/public transport), or something else? How would you know whether to use in or on for an unknown vehicle?

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marked as duplicate by Hellion, Damkerng T., Gilles, starsplusplus, nxx Mar 25 at 16:17

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Related: Why “step into a car” but “step onto a plane” at EL&U. –  choster Mar 24 at 22:57
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English is a strange language. –  Jolenealaska Mar 25 at 0:06
    
I'm now curious about "get in" vs "get on" a submarine or a submerged boat or any similar vehicle. –  Damkerng T. Mar 25 at 3:23
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I would say a language does not always stick to logic. Just learn by rote. –  Kinzle B Mar 25 at 4:34
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It is not important as a native English speaker I will understand you will no problem whichever one you use. “Get in” is the best choose if you don’t know otherwise. –  Ian Ringrose Mar 25 at 12:58

6 Answers 6

It depends on whether you can stand up or are seated outside when being carried by a typical example of the transport in question, on its size, and if it is enclosed.

Cars and the typical small helicopter typically don't really allow a person to stand up and are enclosed, therefore one is "in" them.

On the other hand, early open-cockpit aircraft and later passenger aircraft, buses, bicycles, motorbikes and ships all allow their users/occupants to stand (or the occupants are seated outside), hence one is "on" such transport.

Small boats are a mixed case; One can be "in" or "on" a small, boat. On the one hand it is small and may be enclosed, on the other hand, one can stand when aboard one (however foolish it may or may not be to do so), and one is seated outside when sitting.

If we have an imaginary vehicle, eg a "snarfblagger", if it is small, enclosed, and doesn't really allow a person to stand within it, a person using it is probably "in" it. On the other hand, if the "snarfblagger" is ridden like a bicycle or a horse, or is large enough to stand and walk around inside, then a person using it is "on" it.

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I get on a train then decide where I will sit and walk to the seat. I have to choose my seat before I get into a car. –  Ian Ringrose Mar 25 at 12:56
    
@IanRingrose However when you're already seated and you get a call from your wife asking where you are, you still reply with: "I'm on the train" –  Cruncher Mar 25 at 13:57
    
@Cruncher, saying "I am in the seat is less useful", likewise you would not say "I am in the car", but something like, "I just past Cambridge on the A14" –  Ian Ringrose Mar 25 at 14:04
    
@IanRingrose well that kind of depends on scope. If the drive is only 5 minutes, and based on the timeline you may or may not be in the car yet then "I'm in the car" could certainly be an acceptable(and helpful) response –  Cruncher Mar 25 at 14:07

You get on a train because you can move around from car to car and walk around from place to place, you get in a car because you must remain seated in a single position inside the car and do not have the option of moving around.

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Here's a jumble of thoughts, because I'm not sure if there is a definitive answer here:

  • I believe you would use "on" in any situation where you could ever describe yourself as "boarding the [vehicle]". You can use the verb "to board" with train, plane, or boat. Once you have boarded the plane, you are on board the plane - or just "on the plane" for short.
  • You would not board a car, though. Also, to be "on the car" would mean to be sitting on the roof of the car - so perhaps we do not use "on" with "car" because it would have a different meaning than the one we intend.
  • You can board a helicopter, and I think you could therefore say "on the helicopter", though I think more people would say "in the helicopter". [Maybe this is because being "on" the helicopter, as with the car in the above point, would be extremely painful if the rotor were moving :P]
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Could there be any reasoning by the nature of the vehicle? I mean cars, helicopters more "personal" and buses, trains, plains are more "public" and therefore "starts to move" with or without you. Hence, get on it.. –  J A Mar 25 at 1:56
    
@JA: Google Books have about 5K hits for each of "get in/on the chopper", and about 10K each for "...the helicopter". I expect most of the choices there depend on whether it's big enough to move around in - which both the two later answers have correctly identified as the dominant factor. –  FumbleFingers Mar 25 at 4:06
    
It may have to refer to if your able to stand up and walk. You can walk on a plane and train. But you can't walk in a car.. well unless your a little kid or just really short. –  Sompuperoo Dec 16 at 5:19

I think you're right in saying it is involved with the size and the nature of the vehicle. I have no history to back me up here, but I believe it goes like this:

You cannot physically get on top of a train in any normal environment. You stand on a platform and then you get onto a train. It may have originated from the days before platforms, where you would climb up to reach the train, thus getting 'on' it. This is similar with both buses and boats. You tend not to get on the roof of one. You also tend to stand on buses and trains, and may consider the floor of the vehicle as what you stand 'on'.

A car is different. They're not all that big, so standing on one is different to being in one. You don't stand up in cars. You always consider being in a seat instead of on a platform. A car is smaller, so you feel more claustrophobic, and definitely inside.

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I wonder if the standard wording differs in Indian English then! –  200_success Mar 25 at 5:48
    
@200_success They do (at least according to my short visits), which leads me to believe that this answer may be the true cause of the distinction. –  YatharthROCK Mar 25 at 7:24

It's because of the location of the thing that moves the vehicle, the size of the vehicle, and its height.

On a train, the tracks are below you, and you typically must use a small set of steps to climb up to the height where the people and cargo are. "In" also works for a train, but it isn't as common because a train is very large. In a helicopter, the rotor blades are above you, and the vehicle is typically quite small with a very small payload capability, comparable to a car. On a jet or in a jet both work. On bus, in a bus both work. For most road vehicles, only the biggest ones work with "on", like buses. In a boat and on a boat both work, but "in" is more commonly used for very small boats, and "on" is more commonly used for big boats.

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I don't think it's particularly strange or illogical if you think about it.

Like others have mentioned it implies nuances regarding the subject vehicle.

With a car being a small motor vehicle the in implies the movement of lowering your arse to the seat immediately as you enter.

A train or bus being larger vehicles require the patron to step on to a platform or step through the doors first before taking a seat. The same applies to ships, planes and trams.

This is the same with board as in to board a train I presume you know it's not usual to board a car.

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