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John works at a company.

He had a business meeting with people from another company, and that's where he first met his wife.

When people ask him how he and his wife met, can he say, "We met at work"? Even when they work at different companies and usually don't work together?

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    It doesn't matter that they worked for different employers when they met or still do. They were both at work when they met, so they met at work. – Benjamin Harman May 17 at 22:00
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In this particular situation, they are more likely to say "we met through work".

This is an idiomatic way of saying that it was work-related circumstances but doesn't necessarily suggest that they were at a shared workplace, or that they worked for the same company.

"At work" can mean or imply a number of things, but the most likely perceived meaning in this context would be at your normal place of work (eg your office), so saying "they met at work" without further explanation would likely result in the assumption they were employed together. It might not be wrong, but it is vague.

Yes, "at work" can also mean engaged in work, which could be at any location, depending on the type of work that you do, but a native speaker is unlikely to perceive that meaning as an answer to the question of "how did you meet?". "At work" would be understood to be a location, just like "at home" means you are at the place where you normally live.

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    I like this. "At work" is a place, no matter how vague. "Through work" is a circumstance. To remove 'work' & replace with other conditions, "We met at the pub, through mutual friends" emphasises the distinction, location/circumstance. – gone fishin' again. May 18 at 16:15
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    @gonefishin'again. That is simply not how this phrase is used in the English language. If you expect that everyone who says “at work” always means “at the place I work,” you are asking to be misled, because those words are very often used without specifically meaning exactly that. – KRyan May 18 at 17:45
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    @gonefishin'again. The distinction doesn’t exist in the speech of the vast majority of English speakers in my experience, so if you mentally assume that distinction, you are going to misunderstand what people are saying. I agree that distinctions are good and useful, but only if everyone is clear about the distinction being made (and that there is one). That isn’t the case here. The claim that “through work” is “more” likely in this situation is unsupported, and in my experience, untrue. – KRyan May 18 at 17:55
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    You can argue for removing clarity as much as you like. It won't help the OP one bit. – gone fishin' again. May 18 at 17:58
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    This answer would be improved by addressing the specific "at work" phrase the OP asked about. As it stands, this really doesn't answer the question at all, and instead answers a different but closely related question. – Shmeeku May 18 at 18:17
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Yes, “at work” is an appropriate response

The primary definition of “at work” as given by every dictionary I could find is merely that one is doing their job—it has absolutely no primary association with being in a particular place, nor does describing both individuals as being “at work” imply they are working for the same company.

at work

doing a job:

  • Bob’s at work on that software.

(Cambridge English Dictionary definition for “at work”)

to be working:

  • The laborers were at work in the fields.

(Cambridge English Dictionary definition for “be at work”)

If someone is at work they are doing their job or are busy doing a particular activity.

The salvage teams are already hard at work trying to deal with the spilled oil.

(Collins English Dictionary definition of “at work”)

  1. Engaged in a job or other activity, as in The contractor is hard at work on the new building, or The little boy was fascinated to see the washing machine at work. [Early 1600s]

(Dictionary.com definition of “at work”)

“At work” means I am currently doing my job,

(English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, highest-rated and accepted answer to “‘In work’ vs. ‘at work’”)

engaged in work.

  • in action. “researchers were convinced that one infectious agent was at work”

(Oxford Languages definition offered on Google.com for “‘at work’ meaning”)

  • at work
  1. engaged in working : busy especially : engaged in one's regular occupation

(Merriam-Webster definition for “work,” specifically the section on “at work”)

Some of these sources offer secondary meanings of “at work” as having to do with the place of business. Many also do not. (Many more note other uses of the phrase that aren’t relevant in context here.)

So in answer to the primary question here,

When people ask him how he and his wife met, can he say, “We met at work”? Even when they work at different companies and usually don't work together?

The answer is emphatically Yes, he can answer in that manner.

Answering with “through work” is also acceptable, and might avoid some ambiguity, as some listeners might understand “at work” as implying at that particular office. Most, however, will not, as that is not the primary definition of the phrase.

If the question was asked “Where did you meet?” (which would ordinarily be the same question as “How did you meet?”), there might be somewhat more reason to use “through work,” as the combination of a question asking “where” with the preposition “at” may be more likely to cause listeners to understand the answer as referring to a place rather than a circumstance.

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