What is the difference between the above adverbial modifier of place and "IN the picture" if any?

In "Games for Vocabulary Practice" by Felicity O'Dell and Katie Head (Cambridge,2003) I have come across this phrase more than once reading the guidelines for running activities, e.g. "Student B pretends to be the person ON the picture".

7 Answers 7


The normal thing is "in the picture" as

In the picture we see Edinburgh Castle.

In English a picture is seen as a space; and a landscape, in fact, depicts a space and consequently you say: "In the picture we see a hilly countryside with a river and green meadows with sheep and in the background there is a little village."

In other languages a picture or painting may be seen not as space, but as an area, and "on the picture" is used in German.


When describing the people or things which appear in a picture, we use "in".

If you were to use the phrase "on the picture", it would most likely be to describe something that was not part of the picture originally, but is now on it.

"Your coffee cup is sitting on the picture!" "I left out the crayons, and my toddler drew on the picture you left. So sorry!"

ETA: In North American English, the example you gave would be ungrammatical. I see the book was published in England, though. Perhaps it is considered an acceptable construction there.

  • 1
    that's what I have always thought of.. but it does not answer my question whether it is grammatically correct and if it is so, what shade of meaning it has in this case.
    – Yukatan
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:16
  • 1
    Edited my response, Yukatan. In NA English, I'd have to say it is not grammatically correct.
    – michelle
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:25
  • "When describing the people or things which appear in a picture, we use 'in'." Let me guess... and when describing the people or things which appear on a picture, we use 'on'?
    – tobyink
    Oct 28, 2014 at 23:28
  • It is grammatically correct, but it does not have the meaning the author likely intended. As mentioned above, a person "on" a picture could mean a person standing on top of a picture. A person "in" the picture is captured by the camera.
    – MindJuice
    Oct 28, 2014 at 23:41

I have never heard the phrase "on the picture" to mean "among the things|persons captured by the camera here". For that meaning, it is always "in the picture".

Who is this person in the picture?

One can say "shown on the picture" to mean "which appears in this image".

Point to the strange growth of foliage, shown on this picture, which you believe to be the gangster's camouflaged hideout.

One can write an essay about a painting or photograph or movie, and say that one was writing an essay "on the picture", i.e. "about the picture".

  • 1
    does the usage in the example above strike you as incorrect? Because it does not say 'shown ON the picture', it says 'pretend to be the person ON the picture'. Probably I should read between the lines something like:'pretend to be the person shown ON the picture'?
    – Yukatan
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:22
  • 1
    Yes, without "shown" (or similar) it strikes me as unidiomatic.
    – TimR
    Oct 28, 2014 at 17:01
  • I would consider "shown on the picture" to be just as wrong as "on the picture". It would be "shown in the picture".
    – DCShannon
    Oct 29, 2014 at 3:46
  • If "grammatical" refers to those forms that are routinely generated by native (adult, competent) speakers of a language, then "shown on the picture" is grammatical, as ngram will attest.
    – TimR
    Oct 29, 2014 at 12:07

This is the same in British English as in North American English, so the example sentence is ungrammatical - the explanation given by michelle applies equally to both.

As a native speaker, I would assume that this is not strictly a grammatical error (meaning the author believed it was correct), but a typographical one (meaning the author did not notice their mistake). Since you mention seeing it more than once I would suspect a copy/pasting error.

(It may seem odd for this to be missed by the editor, but these things do happen.)


Unit 8 Describing people
the instructions reads


  1. 1 Give each pair of students an envelope containing a set of picture cards and ask them to spread them out in front of them.
  2. Choose a picture and pretend to be the person on the picture. Describe yourself in five sentences without mentioning your name. E.g. I have fair hair, not dark hair. I am a woman. My hair is short, not long. I am wearing __ , etc. After five sentences, ask students to guess who the person is.


Main activity

  1. Give each student an envelope containing a set of picture cards. Students then play in their pairs.
    Student A puts all their pictures face up on the table.
  2. Tell Student B to choose one picture from their own envelope and look at it without showing it to Student A. Student B pretends to be the person on the picture.

The phrase “... on the picture” as it is used is grammatical in its context. It is short for on the picture card. The author has omitted card from the sentence because it was mentioned in the instructions: a set of picture cards

There are other cases when using on with picture, or image would fit in a teaching environment.

  1. Focus students' attention on the picture.
  2. Student B should focus on the image, and describe it to their partner.
  3. Student A sticks the animals where they want on the picture.
  4. Student B secretly draws a house on the image. (Although "in the picture" would be more idiomatic)
  • 1
    Context, context, context. "Context is king" as they say.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 22, 2016 at 9:53
  • How come a picture on a card becomes something other than 'a picture seen as space; and a landscape'? I just do not get that. Could you dwell upon it, please?
    – Yukatan
    Sep 23, 2016 at 13:52
  • All the other cases of using 'on' with the word 'picture' mentioned by you above are transparent to me.
    – Yukatan
    Sep 23, 2016 at 13:54
  • @Yukatan Hello, I didn't expect your visit! Google Books has 187,000 results for the the phrase on the picture card, it simply means that there is a picture/image on the card, the preposition in also works: "In the card I have in front me is a picture of a castle." I hope this helps.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 23, 2016 at 15:29
  • Oops, the results are on Google.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 23, 2016 at 15:35

In the picture could be an idiomatic phrase. It simply means that someone/thing was/wasn't concerned at all. Say...

Do you think I'm responsible for their break up? It is not so. I was not in the picture at all.

On the other hand, on the picture means someone has drawn or there's a photo of a person and Student B has to be that person.

  • your explanation makes sense. I can't understand one downvote here.
    – Leo
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:08
  • Because this idiomatic usage of 'in the picture' is barely related to the question. Downvote might be excessive.
    – DCShannon
    Oct 29, 2014 at 3:47
  • @Leo downvotes to my question/answer has now stopped surprising me! :) Even my questions (though logical) gets downvoted. So, stay calm, let others enjoy clicking the upside down triangle!
    – Maulik V
    Oct 29, 2014 at 5:05
  • On the picture — electronic based

    The man on the picture is my friend.

    (Most probably, you're talking about the picture on facebook or instagram.)

  • In the picture — paper based

    The man in the picture is my friend.

    (Most probably, you're talking about the picture in your magazine or newspaper.)

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