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I know that we use the preposition at to describe a place. I learned French at school is one of the examples I can think of.

I came across two examples that use the preposition 'in' with 'schools' in the context of 'learning'.

Example #1 from the Business Illinois website:

Eleven things that you will never learn in school.

Example #2 from The WorldBank Blog

Do you think the skills you learn in school will help you get the job you want?

The use that I had in my mind is here on the New York Times

Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

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  • I'm sorry but could you tell me under which entry you found that example, "I learned French at school"? First, I couldn't find it. And second, if I knew him (through his book) well enough, he would write learnt rather than learned. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 3:53
  • @DamkerngT. I'll try for that. But anyway, is it still incorrect to say that. But now on I'll avoid quoting the reference if I don't have an entry number. I have notes where I don't put page or entry numbers. Also the notes are notes mainly from Swan's but not restricted to.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 4:13
  • As a British English speaker I would use at in all three sentences, but American usage is different. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 16:15

4 Answers 4

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TL;DR: "at school" and "in school" are basically the same. You won't get yourself into trouble by using them the same way. This is almost always true when the verb is "learn", except for one corner case that I'll discuss below.

The long answer is that "school" can have several different, but related, meanings, and sometimes it sounds better with one or the other preposition.

In the example sentences you gave, "school" is a metonym that refers to the act of attending classes at some institute of learning. So "things you'll never learn [at / in] school" are things you won't learn by attending classes at some institute of learning. Any time that's the intended meaning, it's correct to use either "at" or "in".

On the other hand, sometimes you say "at school" to mean the actual location where the learning takes place. In those cases you usually have to say "at school" and not "in school". If you literally mean that something is inside the school location, you'd usually say "in the school" or "in the school building".

The border between these two uses can be very fuzzy. For example:

"Where's Bob?"

"He's at school / He's in school."

If we say "He's at school", it implies Bob is at the school building (probably attending classes). If we say he's "in school", it means he's currently attending classes at an institute of learning. In the example I just gave, it doesn't matter, but then we have:

"What's Bob doing these days?"

"He's in school."

While not wrong, it sounds a bit odd to reply that he's "at school" in this example.

One more example, specific to "learn":

"He learned French in school" means he learned French from attending classes at an institute of learning.

"He learned French at school" can mean the same.

But:

"He learned those bad habits at school" means the location where he learned bad habits was the school. Here "school" is the physical meaning. If we say "He learned those bad habits in school", then "school" is metonymy; it means that he learned bad habits from the process of attending classes. It strongly implies that the classes taught him the bad habits, whereas "He learned those bad habits at school" doesn't. The simplest way to understand this distinction is probably: If a professor taught him bad habits, he learned them "in school". If other kids or the janitor or random people who walked onto the campus taught him bad habits, he learned them "at school". If a professor taught him French, he learned it "in school" or "at school". If his French girlfriend taught him French, he learned it "at school". This is the only case I can think of where it makes a difference whether you learned it "in school" or "at school".

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  • Would you mind focusing only in the context of learning and nothing else? Prepositions in other contexts don't confuse me, luckily!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 3:02
  • @MaulikV Do you mean the context of the verb being "learning"? That's pretty much covered by my summary at the beginning, although I'll edit to make that more clear.
    – tsleyson
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 6:31
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There is a very slight difference in meaning between the two prepositions. At school emphasizes school as a place. In school emphasizes school as an institution.

  • Example where in school is more appropriate:

    You speak English very well. Is it your native language?

    No, I learned it in school.

    "At school" would be odd (though still understandable), because just being on the school grounds would not have done much good. You are giving credit to the educational program for your skills.

  • Example where at school is slightly more appropriate:

    What happened to your face?

    Oh, a mean kid at school punched me.

    "A mean kid in school" could also work, but it would not be my first choice. You are mostly talking about an incident that happened at a place, and it was not part of the educational activities.

The distinction is not very strict, though, so learning at school is not altogether wrong.

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  • A clear and concise answer, +1.
    – tsleyson
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 6:42
  • @200_success May I ask a side question, if you please? The construction "...would not have done much good" got me being interested in its meaning. Is it the 3-rd Conditional referring the action to the past time sphere? Or is it attributing this action to the future, inferring that something might be expected, with a perfect sense (derived from the Future Perfect: "will not have done much good")?
    – Eugene
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 20:22
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It is just the difference between the locations of usage. The meaning of the noun school in such prepostional patterns is the time in your life which is being spent on learning in a school. So, both the phrases are idioms. Though, at school is a BrE idiom, and in school is an AmE idiom, both having the same meaning.

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Quote:

"At school means the person is literally, physically, inside the school. ... In school means the person is studying in general (usually at college or university) but not necessarily inside the school building at that moment. “My husband doesn't have a job because he's in school."

End of quote.

Source: Espresso English

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