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There are the greyish black spots in/on the centre of the colony.

Which preposition is appropriate? Is it in or on?

The colony of fungi

  • 1
    Are they in the center (do they form it)? Or are they on the center (the center is distinct from them)? The correct preposition is the one that accurately describes the relationship. – David Schwartz Dec 10 '14 at 13:03
  • Actually, I think both prepositions are a little bit ambiguous. You would say "There's a spot on my arm" to refer to a birthmark, not "There's a spot in my arm". If the spot is part of the colony but mostly on top, someone could say on. If the spot is not part of the colony but seems to be mixed with it, someone could say in. – Ben Kovitz Dec 10 '14 at 14:30
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in

Since the spots are still part of the colony itself, they are in the center, not on it.

Unless, for some reason, the speaker's intent is to say the spots are not part of the colony. In this case, on would be correct.

  • I think this answer is right except for leaving out one thing: if the speaker means that the spots are not part of the colony, then on would be correct. – Ben Kovitz Dec 10 '14 at 8:24
  • Aargh, I thought about it some more and realized that it's slightly ambiguous. I just added a comment to the question. Or on the question. (But not in the question. :) ) Certainly your answer here expresses the main distinction. – Ben Kovitz Dec 10 '14 at 14:32
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What definition of "colony" are you using? What sort of colony?

For example, if it is a space colony (like a moon base), and the spots are some sort of mold growing on the outside of the central building of the colony, on may be more appropriate.

There are situations where in and on can both be okay, too, depending on what propositions (distinct from prepositions) are behind your sentence.

  • The colony of fungi – student Dec 10 '14 at 4:14
  • Okay, if the spots are "on top of" the fungi, and distinct from the fungi, than I'd use "on". If the spots ARE fungi themselves, and these are spots of black fungi growing on the floor of a petri dish surrounded by fungi exhibiting other colors, I'd say "in". This is a pretty tough one and it elucidates the ambiguity of all concise language! :) – BoëthiusTreebeard Dec 11 '14 at 20:32
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Here's how to think about this. Consider the following sentences and think: Which seems most like what you have in mind?

The book is on the table.

I am in the living room.

I am at home.

On emphasizes the top surface. In emphasizes the interior. At just indicates the location without bringing in ideas of a surface or an interior.

The fact that you are saying the center suggests that you want to emphasize the interior. So, in the center probably fits best. However:

  • If you want to emphasize that the spot is only at the surface of the colony, then you could say it's on the center. This leads your listener to see the spot as similar to a book on a table. This would be most appropriate if the spot is not part of the colony.

  • If the center is a distinct region of the colony, like a room in a house, and the spot is smaller than the center, then you would say that the spot is in the center.

  • If the center is a distinct region of the colony, like a room in a house, and the spot is so large that it covers the center, then you would say the spot is on the center.

  • If the center is a point rather than a distinct region, and the spot is at the exact center of the colony, then you could say it's at the center.

  • If the spot is not exactly at the center, then you could say it's near the center.

  • If the spot is below the surface of the colony, then on would be wrong.

If your intended meaning is about equally close to all of the example sentences, then any of the three prepositions is correct.

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