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Hi I tried to look for a grammatical explanation for the usage of "in" and "on" in this context (please see examples below) but I couldn't find any. Why is sentence A and C are correct but sentence B and D are wrong?

A) The girl in the red dress.
B) The girl on the red dress.
C) The girl with the red dress on.
D) The girl with the red dress in.

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To have an article of clothing on means to be wearing it.

This pattern

The {person} with a {article of clothing} on

can be understood as

The {person} with a {article of clothing} on {the person}

So you can see that the preposition in would not work there:

The {person} with a {article of clothing} in {the person}

The girl with a red dress in [her] ungrammatical

The girl with a red dress on [her] OK

To be in an article of clothing also means to be wearing it, but the person is inside the clothing. With on, the clothing is on the outside of the person. It is simply a matter of how one conceptualizes clothing: are we in it or is it on us?

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A and C are correct if the right answer is "which sentences mean the girl is wearing the dress."

Only D is really wrong.

The girl in the red dress

X in Y is used when Y surrounds X on a couple or more sides, or Y is a container of some sort. This means the same as "The girl wearing the red dress."

The girl on the red dress

X on Y is used when Y is flat and X is above it and making contact with it. So this means the girl is sitting/standing on top of the dress, not wearing it.

The girl with the red dress on

On here is being used as an adverb to mean "physically in contact with and supported by a surface", which is also used to mean "that is being worn by her."

The girl with the red dress in

In can similarly be used as an adverb to mean "that is inside of X". Unless the word "girl" means "something that is shaped like a girl but can be used to contain items" this sentence won't make any sense since you cannot put a dress inside of a girl.

  • Sorry forgot to make it clearer. The context is that a girl who is standing on the floor is wearing a red dress. So by this context I assume "B" is wrong? – user54219 Sep 6 '17 at 13:23

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