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We have these example in Oxford Dictionary

Remove the cakes from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

The wine is stored in special racks.

When do we say "on the rack" and "in the rack"?

Look at my dish rack which has 2 levels

enter image description here

Do we say "the plates are in the rack" and "the bowls are on the rack"?

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  • As a native AmE speaker, both the referenced plates and bowls are in the rack, because they are... in the rack. The blue plastic bowl is on top of the other bowls.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 16, 2023 at 19:35
  • Hmmm . . . Often the use of "in" or "on" would depend on how the speaker percieves the placement of an item, such as whether it's within the wire structure or placed on top of it. It has little to do with the actual object itself. But for a wine rack, bottles are placed inside the structure, so I would definiely say "in the wine rack".
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 9:42

4 Answers 4

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Which preposition ('on' or 'in') you use depends on the precise relationship between the object(s) and the rack. There isn't always a clear cutoff between the two cases though - sometimes either could be correct.

On implies the object is resting on top of the rack. The rack in this case is probably fairly flat.

In implies the object is nested down between the wires/components of the rack. The rack probably has more vertical depth than in the previous case.

In your example picture, the rack with the plates consists of taller wire loops standing up, while the rack with the bowls consists of horizontal wire elements lying flat. So, your hypothesis is correct! The plates could be described as in the top rack, while the bowls are on the bottom rack.

But, (and this might just be a matter of personal preference) it sounds kind of awkward to me to have two different prepositions referring to dishes in the same dishwasher. Since it seems clearly wrong to say that the bowls are "in" the flat rack, I would use the word "on" to describe both situations if you are talking about both together. "The plates are on the top rack, while the bowls are on the bottom rack." But, if you're only talking about the plates, either "on" or "in" should work. The rack has some depth, but it is still on the whole a flat platform which things (like plates) can be set on. For dishwasher racks in general though, I believe it's more common to say that the dishes go "on" them rather than "in" them.

Contrast this with the wine rack, which you can find many pictures of here: https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/wine-rack. This is a 3D structure consisting of many cubbyholes, which the bottles are inserted 'in' rather than resting 'on' a flat surface.

So, to summarize:

  • Cake and bowls: definitely use on

  • Wine rack: definitely use in

  • Plates: can use either in or on, but on seems more natural

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  • 2
    That summary fits with the motion of bring item and rack together - the cake is laid on top of its rack, the wine bottles are inserted into their rack. With the washing up, the bowls pretty much such on their rack, the plates in between the prongs but "on" is fine especially with the bowls being "on". Cutlery would go in the basket of a dishwasher - so you could have closely-related items with different prepositions.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 13:40
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    In implies an enclosure - either partial or complete. As a comedian once remarked: "Everybody get on the plane? Hell No! I'm getting IN the plane only daredevils get ON the plane." It would be very weird to get "in" a bicycle, or "on" a car - the former generally has no enclosure, but the latter does. An enclosure doesn't have to be complete, either: e.g. "IN" the sand vs "ON" the sand. Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 17:08
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    @Steven As an aside, if anyone was wondering, the reason (if you can really call it a ‘reason’) that we go on planes without actually climbing up on top of them is that we almost invariably use on for mass transit entities: we are on the train, the bus, the plane or the ferry, even if we’re actually fully enclosed by them. In some cases, you can even distinguish the type by preposition: if you’re in a boat, it’s almost certainly a small one that you’re sailing privately; if you’re on a boat, it’s likely a larger one where you’re just a passenger. Commented Jun 16, 2023 at 12:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, there is also travelling "on foot", and "on wheels", neither of which refer to mass transit. I assume with transport, the question is whether there is some kind of passenger-carrying floor, and whether a person is upon that floor.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 8:06
  • @Steve I didn’t mean to imply that on is only used with mass transit, just that the basic logic (on = not enclosed, in = enclosed) is disregarded for mass transit. For anything not mass transit–related, the base rule still applies. Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 8:57
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Yes, you got it right.

Cakes lie on a flat rack, and wine bottles lie in deeper grooved racks so the bottles don't roll around.

It's the same with your dishes. The plates are in each slot between the upright parts, and the cups are on the flat surface of the rack.

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    Consider that it is also fair to say that the plates go IN the dishwasher ON the rack. And you might also say the wine bottle was placed ON the wine rack if what you mean is that it was placed on the top of such a rack rather than in a part of the rack that would enclose it. "In" implies an enclosure... e.g. you would put the cake IN, not ON the oven to bake it. Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 17:16
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This might not be linguistically backed up by anything, but to me it feels like it depends on what "the rack" refers to.

If it refers to the actual part that holds something, then it's "on the rack". If it refers to the item or construction as a whole that has a function of storing things (e.g. a clothes rack), then it's "in the rack".

"Where did you hang your coat?" --> "I put it on the coat rack!"

"Where did you put your shoes?" --> "I put in in the shoe rack!"

The first example refers to the actual hook on which you attach your coat. Hence: "on".

The second example refers to a piece of furniture that can hold many shoes. You're not specifying one specific spot. You just say that anywhere in that piece of furniture, you placed your shoes.

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I think a crucial distinction for me is how the rack is accessed, as well as to what degree the racking framework itself encloses its contents.

I'd say the default for racking systems considered abstractly, is that they have some kind of appreciable depth, and items are placed into the racks.

However, if the racking framework is shallow (so the majority of the racked item is not enclosed) and accessed from the top, you may say things are placed on the rack - such as a typical dish-rack, for draining dishes adjacent to a sink, which often only really grips the very bottom edge of the plates.

There may be further ad-hoc devices used, such as saying that a bowl is on the rack in order to emphasise that it isn't in the rack in the proper way (such as in the picture).

There may also be an overriding concept that governs the situation, so for example even if a rack considered in isolation would tend to be something you put things on (because it is shallow and top-loaded), it might be part of a larger system in which things are put in - like a cupboard or a dishwasher.

Again though, a linguistic distinction may reappear when trying to make a specific conceptual distinction. So "put the crockery in the dishwasher racks" may become "put the cups on the top rack in the dishwasher" (assuming that, like mine, the top rack of the relevant dishwasher, when withdrawn out of the dishwasher on its sliders, has an onning-type rack specifically for cups, rather than an inning-type rack for plates).

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