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I was looking on the internet but really haven't found anything definite on this. I was writing a letter for IELTS practice and I came with this phrase:

"When I arrived to the school I really did not know what to expect.".

I'm doubtful about whether the "to" is well placed there.

I think the following option with "at" instead of "to" sounds better as in:

"When I arrived at the school I really did not know what to expect."

but I'm not sure if those two are interchangeable in this particular example.

  • 3
    This may be an area where AmE and BrE differ. As an American, I'd almost never use "arrive to". – The Photon Mar 27 '18 at 20:58
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It seems that formally the only one correct preposition in your context is "at".

"When I arrived at the school I really did not know what to expect.".

Based on Cambridge dictionary and Oxford dictionary and Merriam Webster dictionary, the correct preposition in your context is "at" except for countries and cities names (such as New York) that then you have to use in the preposition "in".

I arrived *in* New York.

Cambridge dictionary explains:

We use the verb arrive with at or in to talk about ‘coming to’, ‘getting to’ or ‘reaching’ a place where a journey ends. If we see the destination as a point, we say arrive at. If we see it as a larger area, we say arrive in. We don’t say arrive to a place.

But according to Collins dictionary we have to distinguish between to "arrive" meanings:
The first meaning with preposition "at": When a person or vehicle arrives at a place, they come to it at the end of a journey.

The Princess Royal arrived at Gatwick this morning from Jamaica.

The second meaning with preposition "in" When you arrive at a place, you come to it for the first time in order to stay, live, or work there.

...in the old days before the European settlers arrived in the country.

Anyway, it's very common to see people that use the preposition to in such context, but it's considered as a common mistake even among native English speakers.


By the way, the words "arrive at" can be also an expression:

"Arrive at something", means "to come to a decision about something after much consideration" as Cambridge dictionary states.

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Hah, there are lots of different prepositions you could use after arrived!
"When I arrived in New York" (always has to be in, I don't know why, nothing else sounds right)
"When I arrived at New York Harbor" (in would be a different kettle of fish)
"When I arrived on the moon" (you could be at it, too)
"When I arrived over New York" (returning from the moon, perhaps)
etcetera. But I'm having trouble thinking of a place that "arriving to" would be as comfortable a usage as "arriving at". Count me in the at camp.

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Places normally take the preposition at, and "school" is a place. However, to X is often used when X is a destination of a motion or trip.

When I arrived to the school I really did not know what to expect.

So this isn't wrong, but it implies previous sentences or speech were focusing on the trip to the school, for example: you may be touring or visiting well-known places, rather than attending classes at the school.

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