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Let's say you and your son, who is 3 years old, watched a movie at a theater. Then your son fell asleep and you have to carry him back to your car. And you say:

I laid my son safely in/on/at the back seat of our car.

All of these make sense, but which is correct?

  • The three prepositions in, on, at identify the target reference as a container, surface, or position. You could lay your child at the back of the car, since that's a "location", but the back seat is an "object", not a "place", so you can't reasonably use at in your context. Actual car seats are usually seen as "surfaces" (that you can sit on) - but you'd be much more likely to use in if you were using a baby/child car seat, since they have "enclosing" sides. Note that "correct" means "logical, sensible" here, not "grammatical, syntactic" – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 27 '18 at 13:13
  • Hmm I see, I thought evertime you use ''in'' all the sides should be enclosed completely, like in a box. Thx man, I got it. – John Arvin Jul 28 '18 at 0:22
  • You might find this NGram interesting. It shows what I would consider a statistically significant difference in the ratios between on/in in the context of his/the chair... – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '18 at 13:10
  • In case it's not immediately obvious, although in is always more common with any kind of chair, this preference is far stronger with his chair than with the chair. Reason being that his chair much more likely to be large, padded, "bucket-like" - a man often has his favourite comfy chair that only he normally sits in, even though he might sit on any one of 4 identical dining table chairs (which aren't usually of a "containing" design). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '18 at 13:17
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I laid my son safely on the back seat of our car.

In - would imply you somehow got him to fit inside the seat, under the cushions...

At - not sure what that implies; the seat is at the back of the car, sure, but once you're at the back yourself then that distinction disappears & you then just sit, or lay, on the seat.

And, as I was typing this, FumbleFingers nails the distinction in comments...

The three prepositions in, on, at identify the target reference as a container, surface, or position.

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