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A question about prepositions:

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Gilberto Francisco's mother said Tuesday she begged him not set out on the dangerous journey from their modest cinder block- and sheet-metal home high in the northern Guatemalan mountains.

How is "in the mountains" different from "on the mountains"?

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'On the mountain' and 'on the mountains' means 'on top of' [EDIT: better explanation, 'on the surface of' - see comments below], like goats or trees or snow. One house can also be 'on a mountain' but not 'on the mountains' (unless it's a really big house!)

'In the mountains' means 'among/in between the mountains'. Here, the home is somewhere in the middle of mountains. (Goats and trees and snow can also be 'in the mountains'.)

'In the mountain' means 'inside it', like a cave or mine.

  • +1 But I don't think on the mountain usually means on top of it, but on its surface(s) or on its side - for example, We went hunting on the mountain. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 3 '14 at 12:13
  • Point taken. You can plant a flag 'on (top of) the mountain', after having walked through the snow 'on the (side of) mountain'. – Sydney Jul 3 '14 at 12:17
  • I am irresistibly reminded of the youth in Houseman's parody who bore mid snow and ice "a banner with the strange device 'Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup'". – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 3 '14 at 12:21
  • I think it would make this answer complete if you make it clear that "the mountains" is the name of a place, so it's the same thing as being "in Canada" – Jasmine Jul 3 '14 at 17:13
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"In the mountains" means in the mountainous area.

A bear lives in the mountains. Sometimes it is on a mountain, and at other times it is in a valley among mountains. It is never inside a mountain unless it sleeps in a cave, but it is always in the mountains.

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I think it's a question of plurality. If I were talking about a single mountain, I'd definitely go with "on the mountain" instead of "in the mountain", but in case of plural, i'd rather use "in the mountains".

Using "on" for the plural case sounds a little vague to me.

  • "In the mountain" would mean "inside the mountain, under the ground." Unless you're in a cave or a mine, you're not "in the mountain". – David Richerby Jul 3 '14 at 22:08

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