Here is a source in which I read the following para:

That made her the 40th monarch in a royal line that traces its origin back to Norman King William the Conqueror who claimed the throne in 1066 with victory over Anglo-Saxon Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.

Now my questions are:

  1. Can we write 'in the battle' instead of 'at the battle'? I used to write 'in the battle', 'in the war', etc. Is it correct?

  2. If 'at the battle' is correct then what is the reason behind putting 'at' before 'the battle'?

  • 2
    at the location of the battle vs. actual events in the battle. – user3169 Sep 9 '15 at 4:53
  • @user3169 What about the sentence written in the question? Which one is correct? – Rucheer M Sep 9 '15 at 5:02
  • @user3169 also, can we say actual events at the battle or battlefield? Why? It's going to be more confusing now. – Rucheer M Sep 9 '15 at 5:03
  • @RuchirM I'm too busy to write a speculative answer at the moment, but you may be interested in my discussion, starting from this message: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/23975928#23975928. (I made several speculative assertions, which I believe are useful for many learners out there.) I also have a few ideas about how we should learn prepositions. The most relevant ones here are probably: it's not rules-based (rules are useful for beginners, and clearly you aren't); there are quite often more than one possible choices; and be careful with your conclusion when analyzing data. – Damkerng T. Sep 9 '15 at 11:26
  • @DamkerngT. Appreciate your suggestion and invitation, Sir. How deeply any question is analyzed here! I am amazed to read the chat went on regarding this question between you and Jimsug. Hats off to both of you! – Rucheer M Sep 9 '15 at 12:06

"In the battle" can be taken as during the battle; that is, some time before the battle completed. So "with victory in the battle" seems a bit odd. If I were writing it, I'd say he claimed the throne after victory {in/at} the battle.

"At the battle" emphasizes the location of the battle, and sounds as if it's saying William was there (at Hastings) but not necessarily an active participant (I don't know English history well, so I don't know if this was true of William the Conqueror.) But I would not use "in the battle" unless I knew he was an active participant.

  • One of the uses I've seen the most is, when talking about vikings or medieval heroes, the expression "to die in battle". Dying at battle sounds rather weak to me. – jesusiniesta Sep 9 '15 at 10:00
  • I agree. If I say, Sam as a father is at school, it talks more about his 'physical presence'; Sam as a student is in school talks about his active participation. However, it again depends on the register we refer. – Maulik V Sep 9 '15 at 10:38
  • You can be a participant without ever picking up a weapon too. It's entirely influential on how your role affected the outcome. – insidesin Sep 9 '15 at 15:49

It's all about context.
To me the quote you gave does not refer to a place or even the battle itself, but to the time the battle took place.

To illustrate, let me rephrase your quote a little:

[...] William the Conqueror who claimed the throne in 1066 by being victorious over Anglo-Saxon Harold II at the very point in time we know as the Battle of Hastings.

So the message would be that he claimed the throne in 1066 and he was able to do this specifically by winning at the Battle of Hastings (at that time in 1066).

He might have taken part in that battle, even might have behaved very heroically in that battle (I don't know) and obviously was victorious in that battle since if he would not have been victorious at that battle he might not have become King (At least that's my guess. I did not check historical facts).

  • I like your explanation, but here is a small query: Can we write [...] and he was able to do this specifically by winning in the Battle of Hastings or [...] and he was able to do this specifically by winning the Battle of Hastings in the last but one para of your explanation? – Rucheer M Sep 9 '15 at 10:38
  • @RuchirM Consider: the words "the Battle of Hastings" are merged to one entity and used as the name of an "event". Kind of like "the Olympics" or "the NYC-Marathon". Normally you do things at an event like taking part at the Olympics. Or you just win/lose it. But you could also take it more literal and use phrases that refer to battles in general like "die in battle" or "take part in battle". It just shifts your focus a little. – SRMM Sep 9 '15 at 23:41
  • @RuchirM So yes you could say "by winning the battle". It sounds very active (like he did this personally) and more literal. But, as Brian already pointed out, "by winning in the battle" sounds pretty odd. – SRMM Sep 9 '15 at 23:41

A very nice question to ponder upon.

As I see, both the styles are in practice. This makes me think that it depends on the style of the writer here.

However, if you refer COCA, you find -

286 results mixed with common use of 'in the battle of non historic battles + the historic ones.

For example:

"...big advice on this and he actually took the womens side in the battle of the sexes"

On the other hand, 350 results to 'at the battle of' gives us more on the historic battles.

To conclude, yes, 'in the battle or at the battle' both are okay, but then, using the preposition 'at' seems to be more common when you are talking about the historic ones.


I have no sources to quote but I would feel:

in the battle - actually fought, on one side or the other. e.g. fell in battle.

at the battle - fought or was present - e.g. the King, at the battle of Hastings.

  • 2
    I believe your answer does a good job of explaining the general case, but the O.P.'s particular sentence seems a bit trickier than that. William the Conqueror claimed the throne in 1066 with victory over Anglo-Saxon Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. In that sentence, victory happened at the battle of Hastings. It could well be that neither William nor Harold were there, but their armies that clashed, William's prevailed, and thus he claimed the throne with victory at the battle. – J.R. Sep 9 '15 at 19:10

The phrase "in the battle" means "taking part in the actual fighting".

William didn't literally "claim the throne" at the moment when Harold was actually killed during the battle. The phrase "at the battle" really means "after the battle", or "as a consequence of the battle".

The historical background is that the previous Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, had died childless, and there was a power struggle between several claimants to the throne. Harold was crowned king, but then faced military action from his own brother Tostig, and from Harald, king of Norway. William took advantage of Harold's military campaigns against Tostig and Harald in the north of England to invade in the south, and Harold did not have time to rebuild his army before the battle of Hastings. There was more military opposition to William after the battle of Hastings, and William was not actually crowned king until two months after the battle.

  • 1
    Can you give me the source regarding meaning of these phrases? I am more interested in addressing my queries, I can find the historical events from the Internet. – Rucheer M Sep 9 '15 at 12:22
  • 3
    See oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/at senses 1,2, 6 and oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/in (preposition) senses 2, 4. I don't think there is anything special about the phrases "at/in the battle". The phrases "4000 warriors were killed in the battle" and "William claimed victory over Harold at the battle". are both correct. "William claimed victory over Harold in the battle" would suggest that William claimed victory on the battlefield during the actual fighting, which is historically incorrect. – alephzero Sep 9 '15 at 14:29
  • 1
    There are quite a few interesting answers to this question, but I think this one rightfully addresses some of the more nuanced meanings of at, which include (from Macmillan): used for stating when something happens; used to indicated where in a particular part of a process; used to reference a particular period. For example: The thunderstorm came at 4 o'clock; Roderigo complains to Iago at the beginning of the play; my family always comes to visit at the start of summer; William claimed victory at the Battle of Hastings. This answer has my upvote. – J.R. Sep 9 '15 at 19:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.