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I saw your mom in the hospital.
I saw your mom at the hospital.

What is different in these two sentences? Do two prepositions make significant difference?

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Possible duplicate of this question. See also this in/at question, and the famous in/at the park question for more on the distinctions and similarities between in and at. – J.R. Feb 1 at 9:57

'In' implies that the person was a patient at the hospital, whilst 'at' is more likely to be used when the person was just on the premises and not a patient, although you would probably use 'at' if you had a appointment at the hospital but were not admitted.

E.g. "Where are you?" " I'm in hospital' (I'm sick/injured and in a hospital bed) compared to "I'm at the hospital" (I'm visiting someone or being seen by the doctor). In the UK, we also tend to say "in hospital" or "at the hospital". "in hospital" can be taken as a personal status, rather than just a statement of location.

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I agree but would just note that seeing someone "at" the hospital doesn't preclude them being a patient, nor does seeing someone "in" the hospital require them to be a patient: it's more of an implication in both cases. I know you did say "implies" but I think it's worth being excessively clear :p – Jon Story Feb 1 at 10:01
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@JonS - I had the same thought. I can't disagree with this answer, but I felt someone should point out how the prepositions are too flexible to view this guideline as a hard rule or constraint. For example, if you asked me, "Where's your dad?" and I replied, "He's at the hospital. He had a heart attack last night," most native speakers would not correct my preposition choice, and try to convince me that my dad was not at the hospital, but in the hospital instead. If he's in the hospital, then, for all practical purposes, he's also at the hospital by default. – J.R. Feb 1 at 10:05
    
Agreed - these are not hard rules, but If I asked where someone was, and received the answer "They're in hospital" I would ask what was wrong with them. If I was told "They're at the hospital", I'd ask what they were doing there. – Steve Ives Feb 1 at 10:09

I like Steve's answer; it's probably the first distinction that comes to mind for most native speakers.

However, you've given us two very vague sentences. We can provide a little additional context and analyze the question even further.

Let's say my mom is a nurse, and you had a chance meeting with her in the hallway of the hospital where she works. (Let's assume you were there to drop off a payment in their business office.) In that case, you could use either one:

  • I saw your mom in the hospital.
  • I saw your mom at the hospital.

Let's say my mother is a florist, and she supplies flowers for the hospital gift shop. She was walking back to her delivery van, and you saw her in the parking lot as you were walking in. In that case, you'd probably say:

  • I saw your mom at the hospital.

because you were not in the building when you saw here, merely on the hospital grounds.

Let's say my mom is an EMT who frequently goes on ambulance calls. You saw her getting out of the ambulance at the emergency room entrance. Most likely, you would tell me:

  • I saw your mom at the hospital.

because you were outside the building when you saw her. But let's say you didn't see her getting out of the ambulance; instead, you saw her rolling a gurney down the hallway. In that case, you could use either one:

  • I saw your mom in the hospital.
  • I saw your mom at the hospital.

You might use in because you were inside the hospital building when you saw her; you might also you at because you were also on the hospital grounds when you saw her, and in sometimes conveys the meaning of being a patient, so you might avoid that, and opt to use at instead, perhaps like this:

  • I saw your mom at the hospital. She was in the hallway, rolling someone on a gurney.
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For someone learning English, I think both 'in the hospital' and 'at the hospital' are OK. I think you have to be careful with the expression 'in hospital' (which, to be fair, the OP's example did't use), as this gives a very strong implication that the person is sick and is a patient admitted to hospital. 'in hospital' is more a description of someone;s state, rather than their locations (in hospital, at work, on holiday etc). – Steve Ives Feb 1 at 11:14
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@SteveIves - Very true, although that's partly an AmE/BrE difference, too. (We don't usually say "in hospital" here in the US.) – J.R. Feb 1 at 13:35

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