What is the spatial explanation for the preposition "in" or "on" in the following examples:

1- American society is in trouble. (Why do I have to use the preposition "in" instead of the preposition "on" in this sentence?

2- ... in the following sentence... (I don't know if I have to use "on" or "in" in this sentence either.)

I just do not know how to apply a spatial meaning (or imaging in my head to make a difference between in and on), to correctly use these two preposition, when they are used in sentences holding an abstract meaning.

If you can provide an example through a pictorial description, it would better.

Thank you to all of you!

3 Answers 3


There's no quick answer for this. Different words take different prepositions and you just have to learn each case individually. However, generally and abstractly speaking:

one finds oneself "in" a predicament: in a crisis, in bad health, in trouble, in an argument, in bankruptcy, in a divorce, etc.

words find themselves "in" written formats: in a paragraph, sentence, document, dictionary, letter, etc.

"on" can express a dependency: on medication, on welfare, on scholarship; or

"on" can describe how you're spending time: on vacation, on a leave of absence; or

"on" can describe how you're concentrating your efforts, a point in your progress: on a rampage, on the hunt, on a campaign, on a tirade; on track, (working) on a project, on the last page (of a novel), etc.



Generally speaking, "in" means that something is surrounded by something. The thing forms an enclosure around the thing on all or most sides.

"On" means that a thing is touching the outside of the other thing. It doesn't completely surround it, but is in contact with and potentially even supporting it.


As for your examples:

American society is in trouble because the trouble is enclosing society in time. It's not trouble just at this very instant, or just in the past, or just in the future. It's a week (or a month, or a year, or a minute, or whatever) ago, now, and a week hence. It's surrounding and enclosing current society.

You talk about a word or phrase being in a sentence because the sentence contains it. In this sentence, the word "word" is after the start of the sentence but before the end. In the previous sentence, even the word "end" was in the sentence, as it was before the period.

These words are on your computer screen, as they are on the screen's surface. One one side of the words is the screen, on the other is the air.

There was a recent question about the difference between 'in' and 'on' when it comes to beds. The conclusion there was that being outside of the covers makes you on the bed. You're on its surface. If you're actually under the covers, then you are in the bed. You're surrounded on most sides by parts of the bed.

English is Hard

Obviously there are exceptions, and some situations could be interpreted either way depending on how you look at them. This means that, much of the time, you will simply need to know a set phrase and which preposition is normally used.


Referring to the definitions for in:

example 1 - sense 10:

10) affected by (a specified state or condition); having ⇒ "he's in trouble; they were in tears"

There is no spatial component.

example 2 - sense 1:

1) contained or enclosed by; inside; within ⇒ "in the room, in the envelope"

It is as mentioned in the definition.

on would not be grammatical in either case.

  • Thank you so much 3169 for your answer! That means that everything that is affected by an specific state or condition involves the "in" preposition?
    – Panela
    Nov 30, 2014 at 1:32
  • I don't know about "everything" but usually I think so. If you check the dictionary definitions of "on" and "in" and the example sentences, you might get a better idea. Then check it with some sentences you make up or find elsewhere.
    – user3169
    Nov 30, 2014 at 1:44
  • Than you!, 3169
    – Panela
    Nov 30, 2014 at 1:49

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