10

Are they all grammatically correct and do they all have the same meaning ?

  1. She was on the computer writing an email a minute or two ago.

  2. She was at the computer writing an email a minute or two ago.

  3. She was writing an email on the computer a minute or two ago.

  4. She was writing an email at the computer a minute or two ago.

19

Literally speaking:

Cat on the computer:
cat lying on a keyboard

Cat at the computer:
cat with its paws on the keyboard of a laptop

However, someone might be said to be "at the computer" just meaning that they are physically at the computer station without necessarily using it:

cat sleeping in front of a computer with its head on a mouse

And they might be said to be "on the computer" meaning that their attention/activity is on using the computer:

Cat looking at something on a computer monitor

12

Generally, for all intents and purposes, they mean the same thing and all four of your examples are fine.

They do have a slightly different meaning, though.

on the computer

This specifically means that the person was using the computer. There's no question about whether the person was actually writing the email in a program on the computer.

at the computer

This implies that someone is immediately in front of the computer but does not necessarily require that someone is using the computer.

Writing emails pretty much requires the use of a computer, so in this case, the meanings are identical but, if I change the action slightly:

She was on the computer taking notes for class.

This pretty much means that she was taking notes using her computer.

She was at the computer taking notes for class.

This could (but does not necessarily) mean that she was using the computer to take notes but it could also mean that she was using the computer to get the information for her notes but was actually writing them down on a piece of paper or in a notebook.

  • 1
    Thanks. " 'I am going to be at the computer soon so we can chat online ' told my friend." ..but we should not use "on the computer" in this structure? – Mrt Mar 5 '15 at 20:32
  • 3
    I'm going to be at/on the computer soon so we can chat online. Both are fine. – Catija Mar 5 '15 at 20:37
  • 5
    To clarify the answer (+1) because @Murat asked: You can be on the computer and on the phone and on the internet, describing different ways to connect. You can be at the computer, at the bus stop and at the table, describing a place. If you use the computer to chat, you use and sit in front at the same time and therefore you can use on and at interchangeably for this example. – Stephie Mar 5 '15 at 21:02

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