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I have been told by a native speaker that "I am at a bank" is unlikely but are the following sentences correct in the given situations:

  1. "I am in/at the bank." =I am at the bank I usually use, and am probably doing some sort of business or transaction. I used both "in" and "at".

  2. "I am in/at a bank. (I work there. I think it should be "the" not "a" but I am not sure both "in"and "at" work).

  3. "I am in/at a bank." (I went there to talk to my friend who works there."

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  • Ngrams not found: I am at a bank, so what you were told is perfectly correct. The other 3 permutations of in / at and the / a are all perfectly common. But there's no particular reason to assume any permutation is more or less likely depending on any of the factors you've listed. You should just think of them as alternative phrasings that all mean exactly the same thing (so it's a "stylistic choice"). Dec 13, 2021 at 15:33
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    That's a surprising Ngram result. This one shows it existing only in the past tense. So maybe it's to do with Ngram recording only printed usages. A TV news reporter standing outside a bank might well say, "I'm at a bank". A newspaper reporter would write, "I was at a bank". Dec 13, 2021 at 15:51
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    It depends a lot on context. "I'm at a bank" could be an answer to "Where do you work?", or it could be an answer to "Where are you right now?"
    – stangdon
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:11
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    @OldBrixtonian: I didn't think it was surprising that I am at a bank should be significantly less common than the other 3 permutations of at/in, a/the. If it hadn't produced zero results for that combination, I might have just prepended/appended another word (such as but) to the search strings to force that result. I fully expected that permutation to be less common than the others, so there was likely to be a search string just good enough to find the others, but not that one. I'm not saying it's somehow "invalid", obviously - just less common. Dec 13, 2021 at 17:32
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    It is uncommon even in spoken language to say "I am at a...." because locations are always unique places. One bank is very different than another bank. Dec 13, 2021 at 20:18

2 Answers 2

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  1. I would say "I am in the bank" if the person calling me is nearby. Otherwise "I am at the bank".

  2. If the caller knows I work there, "I am at the bank". If not, "I'm at work" or "I'm in a bank". Either way, if we are discussing the current downpour, I might say, "I'm OK. I'm in a/the bank".

  3. Either. (But I would avoid repeating the preposition: "I am in a bank at Islington" or "I'm at a bank in Islington".)

U.S. usage may be different.

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I am not a native speaker, but I have managed (from my point of view) to achieve a pretty decent conclusion.

According to Cambridge Dictionary At, on and in (place) (visited 13th December 2021), "in" is used to talk about locations in a larger area, which is the purpose when you are talking about being physically in a bank, as your position within the bank is not explicitly stated.

However, "at" can be used to talk about locations at companies, workplaces when we see them as a place of activity. From what I have been able to understand, given by the example How many people are working at Microsoft?, the place's name can only be a company's name or a term referring to your workplace.

Using this, we could technically say I am at Bank of America. Supposing the two interlocutors know about which bank they are talking about, you could technically say the equivalent phrase, I am at the bank.

So, regarding to the usage of "at" (as the usage of "in" is valid in all three instances), the first and third would be valid depending on whether the other interlocutors knows about the bank we are talking about. The second one should be invalid, as you want to reveal that you are in a bank, but you don't want to specify which one.

However, if the usage of "at" is valid for any term that refers to a company/workplace when we see them as a place of activity, then all three should be valid.

Can any native speaker or English philologist confirm or deny my claims?

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After reading the comments and some answers, I am starting to believe that the second option is the correct answer, i.e., all three of them should be valid, as one can see the bank as a place of (financial) activity.

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    We say things like at home, at the market, at the railway station (BrE) so at is not just followed by company names if that is what you are suggesting.
    – mdewey
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:57
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    It is not only limited to this usage, there are other usages stated in the link provided, such as to refer to a position or location which we see as a point when you want to specify that you are at home, but the exact location within your home is not relevant (same for at the railway station), to refer to most shops when you are at the market, Dec 13, 2021 at 16:38

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