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I have been learning English for a few months. I have never seen "on" preposition before the night during my English journey till the morning, but when I was reading a novel and the writer of the novel used "on" before the night, I got confused and came up here to get some help on it. I understand when we use "at" and "in" prepositions before the night. Let me tell (with the help of examples) you what I understand by "at" and "in".

At before the night:

When we are talking about the complete night.

I was there at the night.

In before the night:

When we are talking about a period of time during the night.

I was there in the night.

Could you please tell me when we should use "on" before the night?

I have asked this because I read it in the novel.

From the novel (bad for you):

I broke the kiss and got out of the car. I was ready for a drink and some music. And a lot of people. I needed the crowd. “They all coming?” I asked Green as I held out my hand for the girl to take. She quickly scrambled out of the car and clung to me.

“Probably already here,” he replied. The band liked crashing at our place on nights we played at Live Bay. We kept an open door for any neighbors. Seeing as they were all college students, they never complained. They came and joined the party.

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First off, prepositions are tricky words, and it's hard to talk about all the ways they can be used.

That said...

at

We can use at night to mean during the nighttime:

I was there at night.

(notice how I did not say "at the night," which is what you wrote in your question).

in

We can use in the night to mean during the nighttime or at various times during the night:

Hyenas prowl in the night. (at night would work, too)

into

We use into the night to say that something continues for a long time after sunset:

The partygoers reveled late into the night.

on

You are correct, we don't usually say on night or on the night. However, if we expand the phrase, and stipulate which nights we are talking about, then "on (the) nights when..." is a relatively common construct:

The band liked crashing at our place on nights we played at Live Bay.
I try to go to bed early on Sunday nights.
On the nights when we hear the ice cream truck, we'll go outside and buy ice cream.


Now, let's combine some of these together:

We usually lock the front door at night. However, our roommate Micheal is an actor, and he sometimes works late into the night. On the nights Micheal hasn't come home before midnight, we leave the front door unlocked, in case he has forgotten his key.

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The relevant grammatical structures are discussed in this question. Taken from waiwai933's post:

Days usually get on.

I will do it on Tuesday.
He returned on the same day.

In the story, nights is used the same way we would use days, with the obvious semantic difference being whether or not the sun was up. Nights refer to specific dates in this case, not periods of time between dusk and dawn. Consider (ignoring that information about at what time the band played is lost):

The band liked crashing at our place on dates we played at Live Bay.

Here, using dates or days in place of nights makes sense, so the appropriate preposition is on.

Additionally, I was there at the night sounds off to me. I would use [during (optional)] the whole rather than at.

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Yup. As noted, we use "on" with days:

  • I eat cereal on Monday(s)
  • I go to the gym on Thursday(s)
  • I will call you on Friday (morning/afternoon/evening)

This works fine. It's like saying:

  • I wake early on weekends
  • The band liked crashing at our place on weekends
  • The band liked crashing at our place on nights we played at Live Bay.

That is:

  • Any night the band played at Live Bay, the band liked crashing at our place.
  • Thanks for your quick response. But unfortunately I did not understand your point here. Could you explain it to me? – user62015 May 22 '14 at 13:29
  • @user62015 would you like to chat about this? Let me know, it may be easier to sort things out. – jimsug May 22 '14 at 13:50
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    I think this answer is misleading. It would NOT be okay to say, I eat cereal on nights, or, I go to the gym on nights. However, we could say, "I eat cereal on nights when I work late," or "I go to the gym on nights when I don't have any homework." In short, we can use "on nights" in certain circumstances, but your answer makes it sound we can say "on nights" as easily as we might say "on Tuesdays" or "on weekends," which isn't really the case. – J.R. May 22 '14 at 16:50
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"On the night" is a perfectly valid phrase.

Though I've only ever heard it in a performance context.

Imagine that a music group are practising for an upcoming concert (which takes place at night) and that one of the musicians is not having a good time.

then the phrase "It will be all right on the night" means that things will be fine at the time of the concert.

it's even an idiom - if there is an upcoming important event that you are practising for (say a company presentation) - then a colleague may well say "Don't worry - It'll be all right on the night" even if the presentation is during the day.

I've never heard it not in this context though -- always about some sort of performance.

  • There are other contexts where the phrase might be used. "Where were you on the night of the 12th?" comes to mind. – J.R. May 23 '14 at 14:52
  • Ah yes - I'd forgotten my various encounters with the police. Corrected! – Transact Charlie May 26 '14 at 7:35
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The most common use of "on the night" is when it is followed by an occurrence or occasion or date:

"On the night that you were born, there was a terrible thunderstorm."

"I got the news on the night of your performance."

"On the night of May 22..."

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