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I'm familiar with some serious discussions about preposition particularly when it comes to kind of "at" vs "in" involved. I know that "at" suggests a point in space and "in" requires being confined, enclosed in the area. Taking all the information we know into consideration, where does one imply to be exactly by saying "I'm at sea" (apart from its idiomatic meaning for sure).

Is he far away from the coast on the water in/on the boat or any vessel? Or is he on the coast anywhere near the sea? Or both are possible?

After learning the fact that "being at sea" and "being at the sea" are not the same thing, I have to include the following question in my post ; - how come the article "the" make such a difference like "being close to the sea(seaside)" and "being on an open sea/ocean" ? (please mention it in your answers)

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    I'm at the sea is not idiomatic in English. It just is not.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 16:59
  • @Lambie is there any difference between "at the sea" and "at sea"? If yes, then I guess I have to make some additions to my post. Jan 9, 2017 at 19:52
  • In American English we say I'm at the ocean to mean I am on land near/next to the ocean. We don't say I'm at the sea (although we could by analogy) in AmE. I'm at sea means I'm out in the sea and not on land. Jan 9, 2017 at 21:29
  • Right, one could say: I am at the ocean, as opposed to being in the city or in town. But not "I am at the sea", as Clare says. Yet, I have four downvotes. Yes, at sea means specifically on a vessel (boat, raft, submarine, yacht) that is sailing on the sea. It is used to say: not at dock or docked. The boat is at sea and has not been docked in the marina for three weeks. The crew has been at sea with it. Again, at sea also means you are in over your head regarding something, figuratively. At the Sea as used in those titles is poetic and not a usual way to say that in English.
    – Lambie
    Jan 10, 2017 at 1:19
  • @Lambie and Clare ok, we've agreed on that, at the sea/ocean suggests being at the seaside,on land close to the sea/ocean and "at the sea" by contrast, means to be out in the sea on vessel, but what I'm concerned about is that how come the artice "the" make such a distictive difference? How would you explain that ? What is the role of "the" here exactly ? Jan 10, 2017 at 20:37

4 Answers 4

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In the sea: someone is actually IN the water. Not great for fishing. 

On the sea: On a boat, not fishing from a dock or at the shore. 

At sea: Out on the open ocean, not close to land. Associated with deep sea fishing. 

English has so many of these little differences that mean so much. It must be a nightmare to learn it as a second language and master all of these microscopic things.

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  • Maybe, but at least in English you don't have to memorize tons of verb conjugations. Right?
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:16
  • @Lambie - I dunno, we have enough irregular verbs that it's tricky. And think about things like drink - I drink, I drank, I have drunk. Also, the wine has been drunk, and he has been drunk, but drunk means something different in the two cases. But I think, I thought, not I thank! And let us not even get into the whole lie/lay/laid/lain mess...
    – stangdon
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:57
  • @Lambie you are totally right, but things never go straight too ;)
    – CatfishFTW
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:25
  • @stangdon besides the irregular and regular countable nouns....
    – CatfishFTW
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:25
  • Also, "I go fishing in the sea." = underwater; you'd rarely use this. "I go fishing on the sea." = no meaning. "I go fishing at sea." = out on a boat; usual usage. "I go fishing by the sea." = you're on land; also usual.
    – CatfishFTW
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:33
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"At the sea" can be taken to mean on land next to the sea (like a vacation resort, beach, or something like that). This kind of usage seems to be more common in British English ("a holiday at the sea") than American English ("a vacation at the beach").

"At sea" usually means "on a boat in the ocean" (surface vessel or submarine, at least in the usages I'm familiar with). It can also be used as a metaphor to describe someone in a chaotic or confusing situation; for example, "he was at sea trying to balance the demands of work and family". That usage seems to be mostly literary; I don't usually hear someone say that out loud.

"In the sea" would imply being physically in the water (swimming, diving, treading water, drowning, etc.).

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    at the sea is not idiomatic in English: at the seaside, at sea, at the seashore, yes.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 16:58
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    @Lambie: Interesting - I could swear I've heard that usage more than once.
    – John Bode
    Jan 9, 2017 at 16:59
  • There's a relevant thread here. @Lambie - I agree with John Bode. I think at the beach or by the sea are more common in AmE, but my initial thought was that "at the sea" indeed means "on land near the sea", as in cottage at the sea, perhaps.
    – J.R.
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:02
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    @Lambie It actually shows up in book titles, so I think it must be something that is used formally by some English speakers. See, e.g., Jennifer Bright At the Sea 1996, Michelle Galindo Beach Houses: Living at the Sea 2013, or Brunton & Goodfellow At the Sea 1873. I'm a native AmE speaker, and it sounds formal/old-fashioned, but not ungrammatical or wrong to me.
    – 1006a
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:34
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    Normally, it would be: At the Seaside. That said, authors take liberties but in contemporary English, it would not be usual or normal. Only poetic. A cottage BY the sea. Those books are just odd usages.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 18:59
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Both are possible. If someone is "at sea", I expect that person to be onboard a vessel travelling on the ocean. The vessel is not parked to a port, but other than that the sentence does not convey whether he is close to shore.

If someone is "in the sea", I'd expect him to be inside a submarine... (or perhaps diving / swimming).

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  • In a related note, "a-sea" meaning "at sea" is a favorite on crossword puzzles, although not commonly used.
    – Andrew
    Jan 9, 2017 at 15:20
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    This doesn't address OP's actual question about "at the sea"--which I would take to mean on the seashore. Jan 9, 2017 at 16:07
  • A submarine moves under the sea. In the sea is simply not common.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:13
  • @Lambie that was more of a joke. The only possible scenarios I can think of someone being "in the sea" is either in a submarine, or they're dead and the body is at the bottom of the ocean.
    – kevin
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:16
  • @kevin or they're just swimming?
    – user42526
    Jan 9, 2017 at 17:18
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/We're at the sea/ is not idiomatic in English. It just isn't.

The following are idiomatic: to be at the seashore, to be at the seaside/to be seaside, to be at sea. Seashore tends to be AmE. Seaside tends to be BrE.

/To be at sea/ means to be away from home on a boat on the water (or in a submarine under the water) for some period of time. For examples: Most members of the merchant marine spend many months at sea every year.

To be /at sea/ is associated with sailors or those who earn their keep on the water or under it (submarines). Also, yatchting people use the expression. "We were at sea for three weeks before reaching Hong Kong".

At sea also has a figurative meaning: it means to not know what you are doing. For example: I am completely at sea with computers.

If you are /in the sea/, you are swimming in the sea/ocean or floating on it or have fallen or jumped overboard from a boat.

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