74

I am really confused. Which preposition is correct?

She is in/at the park.
They are in/at the park.
I am in/at the park.

Should I use in or at in these sentences?

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  • 3
    at is a point in place or time, whereas in can connote enclosure as inside. I'm at the park does not tell us where at the park you are... Of course I'm in the park doesn't either, but at least we know you have entered the actual park – user6951 Nov 26 '14 at 16:26
  • 8
    A choice between prepositions often isn't about 'correctness'. Which one to use is largely idiomatic. – Octopus Nov 26 '14 at 18:04

11 Answers 11

82

In and at and on are notoriously difficult for learners to grasp and native speakers to explain.

These are called prepositions of place.

at conceives of a place or location as a point. Like an X on a map. You are at a particular place and not some other place. If there is an inside and outside to the place, at does not indicate whether you are inside or outside.

I'm at the bus stop.
I'm at the corner of 5th Avenue and Elm Street. =conceive the corner as the point of intersection.
I'm at the southeast entrance of the parking lot.
I'm at the park. (park is conceived as a point in space)
I'm at the parking lot. (conceived of as a point in space)
I'm at the shopping mall.
I'm at the south concession stand of Section 111 of the ballpark.
I'm at the swimming pool. (somewhere near the swimming pool, not in the swimming pool!)
I'm at the elevator. (as in at the elevator entrance)

Sometimes these expressions become fixed phrases, such as in
at school
at home
at work
at the office

In conceives of a place or location as containment or enclosure, often as inside or within.

I'm in the store. =inside the store.
I'm in the park. =within the park.
I'm in the parking lot. =within the parking lot.
I'm in in the garden.
I'm in the city.
I'm in the world.
I'm in the corner of my room. =confined in the corner
I'm in the swimming pool. =within the water.
I'm in the chair. =enclosed by the chair.
I'm in the car.=within
I'm in the bus/train/airplane/boat/trolley/streetcar=confined within or inside.
I'm in first class (section of the aircraft)! =confined in or within the first class section or compartment.

On conceives of a place as on a surface or in contact with a surface

I'm on the chair. =the surface of the chair, including the seat or the arm or the back.
I'm on the corner of 5th Avenue and Elm Street. =conceive the corner as a surface area.
Im on the world (and I want to get off) =conceive the world as a surface area.
I'm on the school =on top of the school roof, for example.
I'm on the automobile (car) =on top of the autombile (car), it's roof as a surface
Note well: I'm on the bus/train/airplane/boat/trolley/streetcar (conceive of being in contact with a surface; these methods of transport are large enough to have a walkway, which is the surface.)
The fly is on the wall =in contact with a surface.

Notice corner was used with all three; which preposition depends on how the speaker conceives of the corner (at the point of intersection of two lines, in a place that confines her, or on a surface area.)

Compare:
The bird is at the tree, as compared to at the bird feeder.
The bird is in the tree=within the tree branches, for example, or confined in the tree.
The bird is on the tree=on a branch, for example.

The bird is at the bird feeder, in the bird feeder (stuck inside, for example), on the bird feeder (on a surface, either on top or on a peg...

The boy is playing hockey on the street=street as a surface area.
The boy is playing hockey in the street=confined within the street.

Jill is at the stairway. (point in space)
Jill is on the stairway. (on a surface)
Jill is in the stairway. (within or confined)

Write your name in the top left corner of the page. (confined within the corner)
Now, print today's date at the top of the page (a point).
On the bottom of the page, draw an X.(on=on the surface of the page).
Draw a C in the middle of the page (confined in the middle).

Edit to add elevator:
We are at the elevator to mean at the entrance to the elevator.
We are in the elevator. We are inside the elevator.
We are on the elevator. (You are riding on the elevator, like on the bus. Here, the elevator floor is the surface area.)

Two people trying to find each other:

A. Where are you? (in some dialects, Where are you at?)
B. I'm at the zoological park.
A. Me too! Where at the park are you? Are you already in (inside, within the park)?
B. Not yet. I'm out on the parking lot (surface area) arguing with this other person.
A. What? What happened?
B. I was parking my car in the parking lot (within) when some clown hit my car. Where are you?
A. I was waiting at the 4th entrance like we agreed, but little Joey got bored, so we are already in (inside) the zoo.
B. Where in the zoo are you?
A. We were at the first taco stand; then we waited at the entrance of the Panda House for 20 minutes.
B. Cool! Are you in yet? (within/inside, the Panda House)
A. No. There is a delay. There is a worker on the Panda House, (on the surface of the top/roof).
B. Okay, I am now in line (fixed phrase) trying to get in (inside) the zoo.
A. I'll come meet you. At which entrance are you?
B. I'm at the southwest entrance.
A. Don't move. We're coming.
B. Too late. We're already in. (within, inside, confined in).
A. Where (at)?
B. I'm on the zoo train. (train conceived of as a surface). But these seats are so small, I sitting on the seat, not in the seat.
A. What do you mean on the seat?
B. Well, on the back of the seat (the back as a surface).
A. Are you (located/seated) at the back of the train? (a particular point ).
B. No, I never sit in back (fixed phrase, but means confined in back).
A. Guess what? We're on the ramp (surface) of the Lion Exhibit. Now we're in the exhibit (confined/inside).
B. What do you mean in the exhibit? You're really inside (=within, in) the exhibit, among the lions?!!
A.-----
B.Hello? Hello?...Well, I hope she is not in the lion!

  • 4
    A great answer, but I'd like to add that these prepositions have other ancillary meanings that go beyond the basic meanings you've listed here. On is probably the most vexing, as we can be on hold while we're on the phone, until the radio host takes our call, at which point we'll be on the air, before the host moves on and takes the next caller on his show. There are also phrases like: He's in trouble, the show is in color, she's on a trip, pay me in cash, and I'm at a loss. Lastly, you answered this question in November, on the 26th, at 4:30 in the afternoon. – J.R. Nov 27 '14 at 8:19
  • Yeah, @J.R. and I'm sure you know that in, on, and at demonstrate similar 'behavior' as prepositions of time as they do of place, but I didn't want to get into that in an already overlong answer... – user6951 Nov 27 '14 at 8:34
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    I agree, your answer is fine (and I've upvoted it). But I thought those other uses deserved a mention in a footnote. I wouldn't want a learner reading your comprehensive answer and then walking away thinking that they now fully understood these three versatile words. – J.R. Nov 27 '14 at 8:38
  • This is almost an essay, and "answer" would be quite an understatement. But in all that lots of text, I missed a classic example for the sole use of at, and that's stores and shops derived from a profession: at the butcher's, at the hairdresser's. If I remember correctly, you're even required to use "at" for at the butcher's house, when the butcher has invited you privately into his home as his guest, e. g. for a dinner. BUT: "The butcher's wife was in the butcher's house, and could not hear me" (calling her from outside; in is in fact short for inside here) – syntaxerror Nov 29 '14 at 12:22
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    Perhaps a way to indicate J.R.'s and syntaxerror's point without excessive wordiness would be to say that conceiving of a location as a point, as an enclosure, and as a surface are the primary meanings of at, in, and on, but there are endless conventions for how to extend them, which are quite irregular and unpredictable. For example, the following sound strange: "I'm at New York", "I'm in the butcher's", "I'm on the airport." And the following are ordinary: "I'm at sea", "I'm in business", and "I'm on homework problem #6". – Ben Kovitz Nov 30 '14 at 7:58
67

Both are equally correct, and have nearly the same meaning. In would mean physically within the bounds of the park, while at is slightly less precise, because she might be inside the park, or perhaps just outside the gates.

  • 11
    It's worth adding that "in the park" would rarely be used in an urban setting, per Kevin's answer. If I were at a park, in a city, and someone called me, I would always say "I'm at the park." So while this answer is technically true, I think it's a fine point that could be misleading to a beginner. For the majority of practical use, "at" is correct and "in" is, if not "wrong" then at least awkward. – Jonah Nov 27 '14 at 2:30
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    In would probably be used mostly, as Colin points out, to distinguish where at the park you are. "I'm in the park"; "I'm at the gate"; "I'm across the street parking my car". – KutuluMike Nov 27 '14 at 17:07
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    @Jonah that may be a regionalism (sounds like USA English to me). In NZ, I would definitely say "I'm in the park", even if the park was in the city. – Blorgbeard Nov 28 '14 at 2:34
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    What Blogbeard says. In Australia I'm in the park, or at the park with equal correctness. The only time I'd differentiate them is when you have just arrived there, eg: 'I'm at the park now', which as Colin infers is due to not necessarily being inside its borders. 'In' the park is fine. – mcalex Nov 28 '14 at 5:13
  • I don't even think it's a regionalism. I'm from America and I would say "I'm in the park" if I were, as Colin says, inside the bounds of the park. – Josh Nov 30 '14 at 5:26
27

As a native speaker of American English, I can't justify this, but to me, in subtly connotes a much larger park than at. A person might be at the city park, but in a national park.

  • 14
    I could see that. You never say someone is at the woods, they are always in the woods. Similarly proximity has a bit I think, She is "at the store" if you're asking while we're at home. She is "in the store" if we're in the parking lot looking for her. – atxdba Nov 26 '14 at 3:59
  • 1
    This is exactly right. If folks had gone down to the little lakeside park a couple blocks from my home, I’d say they were at the park. But if instead they had chosen to drive up on into Rocky Mountain National Park, I would say there were in the park — somewhere; it’s a big place, and at doesn’t work for big places. – tchrist Nov 26 '14 at 4:59
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    My sense (also as a native AmE speaker) is that you use "at" when you're making a statement that you expect to uniquely(ish) identify the location - that is, I'd say "at the park" when I expect that the listener could go to the park and, without further clarification, probably find the person they're looking for just by looking around. I'd say "in the park" if the park is big enough that the listener would first need to narrow down their search to only part of it. But this is an incredibly subtle distinction, and not one that I ever really thought about before. – David Z Nov 26 '14 at 7:59
  • @David Z at definitely refers to a point in space or time (at 3pm) but both parties would have to know where at the park you mean in order for at to identify a specific, known location – user6951 Nov 26 '14 at 16:35
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    I think in has this connotation of a bigger park because the implication is that at the park is not specific enough to describe where you are, because there are multiple nearby areas that could be considered at the park. – KutuluMike Nov 27 '14 at 17:08
17

Both "at the park" and "in the park" are correct English, but they mean slightly different things.

At the park treats the park simply as a location without regard to being inside it or outside it.

In the park specifically means the interior of the park.

So, if you're standing just outside the gate to the park, you could say you are "at the park" but it would be wrong to say you're "in the park". If you're inside the park, then "at the park" and "in the park" would both be correct, but they have different emphasis. "At the park" emphasizes just the fact of being at the park; "in the park" emphasizes that you are at one place inside the park, as opposed to many other places inside the park.

Some examples to illustrate the difference:

I work as a groundskeeper at Golden Gate Park.

Here, "in" would be incorrect, because you don't mean a specific location within the park, you mean the park as a whole.

The Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park.

Here, "in" is more appropriate because you're distinguishing the Conservatory of Flowers from other locations within the park. But "at" would still be correct; it would just de-emphasize the fact that Golden Gate Park is quite large. "At" leads the listener to imagine the location as if it were a single point, no matter how big it really is.

I'll meet you at the park.

Here, "at" suggests that if you both go to the park, it will be easy for you to find each other. Maybe there is an obvious location where you'd go, like the gate. Or maybe the park is small enough that you'd see each other no matter where in the park you're standing.

I'll meet you in the park.

Here, "in" suggests that you'll need to specify where inside the park you'll meet.

Let's play softball at the park.

Here, "at" is more appropriate if you mean to use the park's facilities, like a softball field. All that matters is that the park has such facilities and you intend to use them. Once you're at the park, it will be obvious where to go: the softball field.

Let's play softball in the park.

And "in" is more appropriate if the park doesn't have a softball field. This sentence suggests that you want to go to the park and search for some unoccupied grass to play softball. But in both of the last two examples, both "at" and "in" are still correct. The difference is the emphasis: the way they direct the listener's attention and imagination.

The same kinds of distinctions attend many phrases where "at" and "in" are both correct English. For example, "I'm at the Fairmont Hotel" could mean that you've booked a room at that hotel, even though you might not be physically present inside the hotel right now; or it could mean that you're physically present inside the hotel, or maybe standing just outside it. "I'm in the Fairmont Hotel" specifically means that you are physically somewhere inside the hotel right now.

More about the differences in meaning and customary usage among at, in, and on is explained in the article on "at" in Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms.

  • "At the park treats the park simply as a location without regard to being inside it or outside it. In the park specifically means the interior of the park." is wrong. Look at your own examples of "at". Every one contains an active verb: work, meet, play and it is this that triggers the use of at, not whether one is inside or outside the park or the 'meaning'. This is because "at" and "in" are functional words with little or no lexical content. The 'meaning' in your examples derives from the presence of the active verb. There is a lot more to meaning looking in a dictionary. – Roaring Fish Dec 1 '14 at 4:01
  • If you want to get past the look-it-up-in-a-dictionary phase, try Frege's On sense and Reference; Grice's Logic and Conversation and/or Meaning; Russel's On Denoting, and Searle's How to do things with words. These will give you a broad background on how meaning is generated, and why reference to a dictionary is quite pointless. Consider this:"Dictionary meanings are by definition out-of-context meanings. They can never be part of either sentences or utterances, since, as soon as we are to assign a word a value in any kind of context, we contextualize it." ~ Beatrice Warren – Roaring Fish Dec 1 '14 at 4:11
  • @RoaringFish Most of the examples are pairs of sentences that differ only in one word: "at" vs. "in". They illustrate how the context affects the meaning. I'm not finding your comments helpful or relevant. – Ben Kovitz Dec 1 '14 at 5:03
  • Okay... then explain why we don't say "he is at his room" or "he is at Rome" if it just a matter of meaning. If your claim were true and it were only a matter of being "without regard to being inside it or outside it" they should be commonly used statements. My explanation is that they have boundaries that trigger the use of "in" but have no function in terms of activity to trigger "at". What is yours? – Roaring Fish Dec 1 '14 at 5:38
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    @J.R. Here's why I think it's so hard to explain "at" vs. "in" (and most prepositions) completely: In a sentence, they get their meaning by analogy with phrases in other sentences, and these analogies often conflict. For example, in "I launched a missile at the park", an analogy with "throw at" can lead "at" to mean "aimed toward". But it can also indicate the location of the launcher, by analogy with "I'm at the park". Many analogies tug at "at" in every sentence in which it occurs, and only common sense can decide the winner. Why do you think a complete, concise explanation is so hard? – Ben Kovitz Dec 3 '14 at 0:26
13

I would use "at" when referring to a location, like "the airport", "the bus stop", or "school". In my mind, it is a specific place I can go to, although that may not apply to every context.

"I'm going to the bus stop. I'm at the bus stop. I have walked to the bus that is stopped at the bus stop, and I am at the bus waiting for the doors to open."

"Where is she?"

"She is at the park."

"I'm at the park, and I don't see her."

"It's a big park. She is probably in the park somewhere."

The park is a location that both people in the conversation above know how to get to. "In the park" is somewhere inside the boundaries of the park, but isn't a location you could give someone exact directions to like "the park on Elm street".

"Where is Dad?" "He went to go grocery shopping, so he's at the market."

"Where did you find that lamp?" "I bought it at the antiques store on main street."

I bought the lamp while I was inside the store, but what the person asking the question wants to know is the location.

I would use "in" with a place that has boundaries that I know the person or thing is inside.

"Where did you park?" "I parked at the airport in lot G."
"Where is your brother?" "He's in the arcade over there. He got bored waiting for you."

In this sentence, even though I'm not currently in the airport, I was at the time that I dropped my glove somewhere inside the airport, so I use in.

"Where did you find your missing glove?" "I had dropped it in the airport."

"Where is your glove?" "I think I lost it at the airport."

I know I had my glove before leaving the airport, and I noticed it was missing after I left the airport, so it is at that general location, but I don't know if it is inside the airport or lying on the sidewalk outside the airport.

5

I think I would say "at" if she is significantly farther away then we are. I would say "in" if I you and I were closer to the perimeter of the park.

Consider you asking me where she is while we are home. I would say she is at the park.

Consider you asking me where she is while we are on the road surrounding the park. I would say she is in the park.

5

In the park is used more than at the park.

Check the Ngram here

One rule of thumb is that we use in for places that have boundaries - a city for example, or a park, which is why we say "he is in Paris" and never "he is at Paris".

But... an airport has boundaries, but we often say "she is at the airport". One explanation for this, and I have tried to find the source but no luck so far, is that we can use at for locations with boundaries if they exist to perform an activity, and the activity is more important than the location. In other words, we say "at the airport" because we go there only to catch an aeroplane or meet/see off somebody else who is, and we say "at Carrefour" because we go there to buy stuff, or "at school" because we go there to learn.

Compare with the situation if you are waiting for your luggage at the carousel, or queuing at the checkout, and somebody calls to ask where you are. Then you would say "I am still in the airport" or "I am still in Carrefour" because the location has now become more important than the activity.

  • 1
    You might say "he is at Paris" when referring to a train journey for instance. – Robin Elvin Nov 26 '14 at 14:35
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    It's interesting that English speakers used to say I was born at such-and-such city – user6951 Nov 26 '14 at 17:15
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    It's difficult to see the usage of the phrases in that ngram. For example, "We were feeding pigeons in the park" seems like it would be used more, but that is entirely different from "She is at the park". – Octopus Nov 26 '14 at 18:00
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    In the examples in your last paragraph, I'm pretty sure I'd say "I'm still at the airport" and "I'm still at Carrefour." – David Richerby Nov 26 '14 at 18:35
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    @RoaringFish Which phrase is more appropriate depends on the intended meaning, not the frequency of occurrence of the phrase. Confusing distinctions of meaning with frequencies of usage is a serious error, hence the downvote. I don't think statistical evidence can establish that "at" and "in" emphasize different things, if that's what you're demanding. If you'll count thoughtful observation of the language as evidence, try the article on "at" here. – Ben Kovitz Nov 30 '14 at 11:41
0

In practise, they are interchangeable and both correct.

However, at would be more often used in situations where you are highlighting the park from other locations where you might be.

  • A)where are you now? B) I'm at the park.
  • Yesterday I had a picnic at the park.

In would imply enclosure so more likely to be used if you are describing location relative to the park specifically.

  • I'm in the park by the pond.

  • There's a gazebo in the park.

-1

'in the park' is a location

'at the park' is more of an activity (but also could be a location)

Eg. Where is susan? She is in the park. (location) Where is Tom? He is at football training. (activity)

Eg. Bob is in the supermarket. (location) Bob is at the supermarket (activity or location or both)

Eg. I am at the hockey game (implies watching) or in the hockey game (implies playing).

  • How is "at the park" an activity? How is "The homeless man lives in the park", a location rather than an activity (living)? – David Richerby Nov 26 '14 at 18:38
  • @DavidRicherby Do you not see the difference in emphasis between "in the park" and "at the park"? "What is she doing?", "She is at the park or at the shop". Being at the place is the activity. vs "The homeless man living in the park" where living is the activity. – JamesRyan Nov 26 '14 at 20:18
  • How does "I'm playing football in the park" differ from "I'm buying milk at the supermarket"? In both cases, a location and an activity are specified and the activity is the primary focus of the sentence but "in" is much more natural in the first case and "at" in the second. If there's some obvious difference between the two, it should be easy for you to explain. If you can't explain it, maybe it isn't quite as obvious as you seem to think it is. – David Richerby Nov 26 '14 at 20:33
  • 1
    James, your answer did not deserve to be downvoted, because it has a kernel of truth. In the park = within the bounds of the park; At the park = doing something within the bounds of the park (e.g. strolling, relaxing, etc) – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 26 '14 at 23:48
  • 1
    James, I think what you ought to do here is massage this answer a bit. As @TRomano says, there's a kernel of truth here, but you've expressed it so succintly that you've invited arguments. I recommend editing the answer and giving some specific examples. – J.R. Nov 27 '14 at 8:10
-1

According to Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary:

The preposition 'in' emphasizes 'inside a place'. So you might say: I don't like walking in the park.

But the preposition 'at' is used to talk about time spent at a place. So you might say:

We spent a really good time at the park yesterday.

  • I'm surprised ! Why down-vote?! This explanation is based on 'Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary'. If this answer is not correct, explain the reason please. – shirvanian Jun 15 '15 at 17:06
  • 1
    Maybe it's because your answer limits the prepositions too much. There's nothing wrong with saying, "We spent a really good time in the park yesterday," or "I don't like walking at the park." – J.R. Jan 5 '16 at 21:40
-5

I think it more depends on which type of park you are at. Like a neighborhood park (one without a restricted access) you would generally say "I am at the park". But if you are talking about a park like say a ballpark or a theme park (IE: DisneyLand, with a restricted access) you would say "I am in the park", letting them know you have entered the park. This is of course assuming a friend or parent knows what park you would be referring to.

  • I sort of agree with where this was going, but think you veered off course near the end. After all, people do say, "I am at the park," even when referring to large, restricted access parks. – J.R. Nov 27 '14 at 8:53