This is from The Company Man from Herman Melville:

"Not personally. I but happened to hear that he was a passenger. For the rest, though it might be somewhat informal, the gentleman might not object to doing a little business on board. Along the Mississippi, you know, business is not so ceremonious as at the East".

Shouldn't it be "in the East"? When talking about customs I never see people say "at the East". At seems to imply a precise location, a precise point in space, so isn't it a bit weird here?


It's useful here to remember that Herman Melville wrote in the 19th century. Language changes over time so what might have been a standard phrase at the time could be out of use now and sound very strange to us.

Currently, in the 21st century, we would normally say 'in the East', if we mean a place to the east of where we are. We also use 'the East' to refer to the East Coast of the U.S.A. I've noticed from reading other 19th century literature that it was more common in that time period to say something occurred 'at' a place, meaning the same thing as 'in' a place. My sense is that in this case 'the East' is a a proper name for the eastern part of the country, the same way we use it now. He is comparing the way business is done in two different places: 'along the Mississippi' and at 'the East', meaning on the East Coast of the country.

  • Could it be that with "at", you would use it when you're not on the same continent, whereas with "in", you would? – Antoine Sep 5 at 8:47
  • @Antoine I don't think 'at the East' is a common usage under any circumstances currently. I could be wrong, but I don't hear it or read it in common English that I'm exposed to. – dwilli Sep 5 at 19:36

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