I told my better half that she should say she's "getting on the bus" rather than "getting in the bus." She asked me why, because you would "get in the car" and not "get on the car." (You could get on a car, but we'd be talking about riding on the roof.)

I couldn't answer why, but I came up with a quick rule, which so far hasn't been proven wrong:

If you can stand up/walk around inside the vehicle, you use on: bus, plane, boat.

If you can't stand up/walk around, you use in: car ... what else, go-kart? Haha.

In my mind, when I try to analyse it myself, you are getting inside the bus, you're not getting on top of it. So why "on"?

Does anybody know why this is/can tell me reasons for this?

P.S. is my rule wrong? I thought of motorcycles/bicycles, but I figure different rules apply for modes of transportation that don't have "cabins."

Just some extra info:

My linguist friend sent me a link to a pretty cool talk back radio show about the English language called "A Way With Words" -- somebody had recently asked about in a car vs. on a train: http://www.waywordradio.org/in-a-car-on-a-train/

Their consensus is the same as mine (they called it "freedom of movement, or embedded as a unit" [consider the freedom of movement on a train, lol not at rush hour I guess, vs. embedded as a unit like being in a canoe]) however, what @Jonah mentioned about private vs. public buses really does make a lot of sense.

P.P.S I would recommend subscribing to A Way With Words if you are learning English, a lover of English, or just want to learn more about it! I've listened to one episode so far and it's quite interesting, not as dry as I imagined a radio show like that would be. About the hosts: Martha is an author, and Grant is a lexicographer and dictionary editor.

  • 1
    I wrote an answer here, which deals with in, at, on in dealing with location, including vehicles. You can be on a train, all right, but you will in a train compartment. You can be either in or on an elevator, depending on how you conceive of the elevator.
    – user6951
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 8:27
  • english.stackexchange.com/q/55948/16310 Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 16:14

1 Answer 1


Not exactly!

I learned it from this site only. And, indeed, it's very useful.

We generally use on to refer to public transport such as train, bus, tram, subway etc. This is the reason, she should get on the bus.

On the other hand, little vehicles such as car will take preposition in. So, she should get in the car!

Furthermore, when we talk about two wheelers, we apply general rule of on being on the surface of it. So, you ride on horse/bike/motorcycle/scooter etc.

  • 1
    That's a great point! Perhaps it's the feeling of "whether or not you get on, the thing is going to leave (train, bus, etc.)" whereas private modes of transportation aren't on a fixed schedule, and wait for you ...
    – Ming
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 4:55
  • 2
    Great answer. And indeed, if I were traveling in a private bus with just a friend, and he was dawdling outside the door, I might say "C'mon, get in the bus" whereas in the same situation at a public bus stop, I would say "C'mon, get on the bus." As a native speaker I've never been conscious of this rule but it explains all the natural uses I can think of.
    – Jonah
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 4:58
  • @Jonah Thanks! Even surprising that I learned (and saved in my mind) was one can read a book on the train! :P This is entirely opposite what we practice in InE. But this is the reason, I'm in LOVE with this site! :P
    – Maulik V
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 5:01
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    @Jonah my feelings exactly, brilliant use case with the private vs. public bus! I'm also a native speaker, and must confess that native speakers don't really think about how they use the language, nor often have good answers as to why things are as they are ...
    – Ming
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 5:04
  • 1
    Just to stir things up a little bit more… Once I've put my gear on the truck, I get in it. ;-) Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 7:39

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