a young woman lying with her arms outstretched on the water's surface

Is it natural to say, "She is floating in the water" or "She is floating on the water", when two-thirds of her body is below the water surface?

The dictionaries say "There was something floating in the river." (source) and

"The boat floated on the calm sea." (source)

  • Somewhat relevant: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/154317/… May 23, 2020 at 11:05
  • In refers to a locale (river, pool, sea), while on refers to a substance (water). It's possible to say in the water, but only if the person is completely submerged beneath the surface. That aside, just floating (without a preposition or specifying a place or substance) is also fine. May 25, 2020 at 18:36
  • 1
    @JasonBassford no. Things that are only partially submerged are routinely said to be in the water. In fact, they're often more likely to be said to be in the water than on it. Steven Pinker has made some interesting observations about that.
    – phoog
    May 26, 2020 at 3:58
  • 1
    @JasonBassford "while floating in the water we could still see the city’s buildings peeking over the trees." Source: nytimes.com/2017/08/30/t-magazine/travel/…. This does not describe someone who is fully submerged. It may be that you would never use this phrase unless the person were fully submerged, but your preference is not shared by all native English speakers.
    – phoog
    May 26, 2020 at 5:18
  • @phoog As I said in another comment before a general cleanup, you can find examples of pretty much anything you want. Even examples of errors, typos, and things that are nonstandard and uncommon. May 26, 2020 at 12:52

3 Answers 3


"In" is fine in this context, "on" would tend to suggest that the object is mostly out of the water. But you could hear "on" being used in similar situations too. There is a lot of fuzziness, and both "in" or "on" are quite acceptable in many situations.

It would be more likely to say "floating in the pool" rather than "in the water", as "water" is assumed. In this case "in" is more likely, unless you specify "surface" as in "there was a stick floating on the surface of the pool".

  • I (AmE) would normally expect to hear in the pool (i.e., the geographical location) but on the water (i.e., at the top), although in the water wouldn't be jarring. May 23, 2020 at 22:27
  • As a side note, you can be "in" a pool or "above" it, but generally not "on" it. This is (probably) because the pool is more than just the water, it's also the structure surrounding it.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 23, 2020 at 23:11
  • 2
    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- No English variety would have: floating on the pool, IMO. Floating on the surface of [a liquid].
    – Lambie
    May 25, 2020 at 17:26


One just says: She's floating.

As opposed to doing the crawl or doing the breaststroke.

In terms of swimming and associated skills.

Now, in terms of description, if you say She is floating in the pool., she is obviously not floating in the river or in the sea.

John: Where's Jean? Is she in the pool?
Mary: No, look, she's down there floating in the sea.
John: Yes, she loves to float, rather than actually swim.
Yesterday, we went down to the river. And there she was! Floating in the river.

  • A swimming skill: floating
  • Stuff (objects) that float: Balloons and floating mats (the latest craze!) and pool rafts float on water, for example.
  • Scum and industrial waste floats on (the) water (horrible).
  • And when someone finds a dead body in the water, one would describe that as: the body was found floating in the water.
  • Lobster pots do not float in the water, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, for example.

In reference to people in swimming pools (or ocean or rivers or lakes) in terms of swimming:

Learn to float, floating, the skill, staying afloat, and by the way, she shows you how to float face down, too!:


  • We love floating in the sea, never in pools. If you are specifying, the word is in for a person. But as I said, regarding pools, people generally just float. And we would not specify.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user230
    May 26, 2020 at 7:15

When your mouth and nose stick out, you are floating on the water. When they are not, you are floating in the water. The essential thing is that you are far enough out to survive. Dead bodies are sometimes floating in the water.

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