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Examples:

  • In a car, van, etc.
  • On a bus, boat, motorcycle, etc.

How can one decide which preposition to use? Is memorization the only way or is there a better way?

Note: People generally explain this by either distinguishing between open and closed vehicles or between large and small vehicles. However, the examples I've given defeat both explanations.

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  • 2
    Why do you think your examples defeat the explanations? Cars and vans are enclosed, so "in"; buses are large, so "on"; large boats are large and small boats are usually unenclosed so "on"; motorbikes are unenclosed, so "on". Jun 20, 2018 at 18:22

10 Answers 10

1

In case of large vehicle where we can freely move or walk, we use the preposition 'on' :

on a bus / train / large boat/ plane etc.

In case of small vehicle where we can't freely walk, we use the preposition 'in' :

in a car / taxi etc.

In case of open vehicle on which we ride, we use the preposition 'on' :

on a bicycle / a motorcycle / a horse.

But to denote mode of transport, we never use 'on a bicycle'. In that case, we use the preposition 'by':

'I am coming by bicycle'.

People will laugh at you if you say 'I am coming on a bicycle'.

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  • 1
    This is the clearest answer yet. However, you’re on a boat regardless of its size, but in a canoe or kayak. So it’s about a generalized size, not the actual size. May 24, 2023 at 14:44
46

The only way to be sure is to memorize. However, you can use guidelines to make the right choice 90% of the time or more.

If there is no compartment involved, you get ON it. (bicycle, motorcycle, skateboard, etc.) (Note: partial compartments, such as those of convertible cars or open-topped boats, count as compartments; pretty much anything where the vehicle at least partially surrounds you.)

Oddly enough, if the transportation is large enough to allow you to move around freely, you also get ON it. (Bus, train, large boat, passenger plane, etc; anything with an aisle or walkway.)

Otherwise, you almost certainly get IN it. (Car, personal aircraft, canoe, etc.)

Thus, you would get IN a speedboat, but get ON a cruise ship, even though both are boats and both are enclosed, because the speedboat is small enough that although you can probably change seats without difficulty, you can't really move around freely inside it.

As a counterexample, even though a van may be large enough that it does have an aisle and you can move around freely inside it, if you call it a van, you get IN it.

4
  • But you travel in a submarine. May 18, 2016 at 17:21
  • @JackAidley true, that is another good counterexample.
    – Hellion
    May 18, 2016 at 17:57
  • 1
    you can either get on or get in a bus or similar vehicle and you can ride on a bus or in a bus, depending on whether you consider the bus having a surface to be on or an enclosure to, well, enclose you Sep 24, 2016 at 1:01
  • If the ceiling is too low in the vehicle/vessel to stand, in must be used. In or on can be used other times, or if the vehicle/vessel has no ceiling (like a bike). In might be used if you aren't supposed to stand at all while it's moving, even if you physically can (like the speedboat).
    – LawrenceC
    Jun 20, 2018 at 20:35
13

Besides the great @Hellion's answer, there is another consideration (#3 in the list below).

This article suggests there are three relevant factors:

  1. Normal position (sitting in or ability to walk on);
  2. Size of a vehicle relative to a human body;
  3. Regularly scheduled nature of the transportation;

Here's the quote:

Consider "She left that morning on a van." Suppose there were a scheduled van service between a central location and some factory on the outskirts of the city. Now it sounds a bit better, doesn't it?

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  • I like the factors, but I still wouldn't say "on a van" - maybe "on the van" if it's a regular shuttle.
    – Jessica M
    Aug 17, 2017 at 8:50
9

As you mentioned, you can use in for getting inside a vehicle (e.g., get in the van), and you can use on for getting atop a vehicle (e.g. get on the bike).

The one exception to this seems to be when you use on as a shortened form of on board, hence: get on the train, get on the plane, get on the bus, get on the ship. Anytime someone can reasonably ask, "Is everybody on board?" – or if there is a boarding process – then you can use on instead of in.

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  • How does it differ to Hellion's answer? Jan 24, 2013 at 14:34
  • @bytebuster: Hellion's answer talks about size and walking around, I talk about boarding a conveyance (as in "All aboard!"). The only "board" that Hellion mentions is a skateboard. If anything, I think my answer is closer to yours (relevant factor #3 in particular) than it is to Hellion's.
    – J.R.
    Jan 24, 2013 at 19:17
0

In gives a sense of being enclosed. On is more open.

  • In a car, van (smaller space more tightly closed)
  • On a bus, airplane, cruiseship, boat, ferry (larger communal space where you could walk if it's not crowded)
  • On a motorcycle, horse, bicycle (open to the air -- you are literally on it)
0

I don't think the current answers are sufficient.

The word "on" implies a service that is being used. "I am on the bus." But the word "in" is appropriate for the bus driver, who is not making use of this service:

"Where were you the night of the murder?" "It couldn't have been me, I was in the (driver's seat of the/my) bus. "

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    I can't imagine a bus driver saying he or she is in the bus. I can imagine them saying they're on the bus or in the driver's seat. Jul 6, 2019 at 12:47
0

On the bus and in the bus:

On the bus is more appropriate. We use "on the bus/plane/train" - because we can WALK while we are inside the compartment.

Just as we can say "In the car/helicopter" but not "on the car/helicopter" as long as you are inside.

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  • Hi Jeff, your answer is already provided. Please check existing answers to prevent this. You can take the Tour to familiarize yourself with this platform. And welcome to ELL!
    – Joachim
    Sep 27, 2023 at 13:13
-1

I read that if you can't stand up, you are IN. In a car, in a cab, ON the bus, on the plane. But that's not right, because you are in the elevator and you are standing up...

-1

This works for most cases:

If you can stand up it is "on", otherwise "in".

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  • You can stand in an elevator. These sorts of guidelines " most of the time" aren't very helpful, because a non-native speaker doesn't know when they're dealing with one of the situations where it doesn't apply.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:08
  • I'd argue that an elevator is not a vehicle. Why did you have to chose an example which is not a vehicle? Why not choose "van" for example? But perhaps there is already a thread about whether elevators are vehicles? :)
    – Gussoh
    Mar 1, 2023 at 20:31
  • I am on my bicycle, not in it. Pat was sitting in the rowboat. These rules don't work for every situation and are a waste of time for learners.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 1, 2023 at 20:48
  • You can stand on a bicycle and haven't your father told you repeatedly not to stand up in the rowboat? Are rowboat and van the only exceptions we can easily come up with? It sounds almost like german where there is a standard rule, but then you have to learn a verse of 12 exceptions which cover the common exceptions... and still missing a few in the end which no one uses. "an auf hinter in...."
    – Gussoh
    Mar 2, 2023 at 21:43
-2

How I explain it to my students: "On" works for communal transport because future passengers wait for their means of transportation on a platform (train), or in a line (bus, plane) before going on (board). The passengers' goal is to join a specific route/circuit to reach destination, rather than getting into the vehicle itself. They're not in the circuit but on it, hence, on the bus, tram, train, plane, cruise ship, etc. It's much clearer with a drawing of a circle with Xs for stops.

Doesn't apply to the metro, subway, and the underground. Even a cable car would be in. I think the visuals are very important here...

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  • I don't realy understand your answer. You say that your reasoning for trains "doesn't apply to the metro, subway, and the underground." Why not? They're just trains. Catching a cable car typically involves waiting in line on some sort of platform, so why is that "in"? (And this applies to essentially any non-private transport.) Jun 20, 2018 at 18:20

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