Which one is correct?:

I was at the cinema yesterday. / I was in the cinema yesterday.

I was at a concert yesterday. / I was in a concert yesterday.

I was at the theatre yesterday. / I was in the theatre yesterday.

Why is sometimes "at" correct in different contexts and "in" in others? Can "at" mean "near" and "in"? If so, how could you guess that the speaker when he uses "at" means "in" or "near"? I know that "in" means inside (correct me if I'm wrong) but it's very confusing when it's "at" but not "in". I don't know if the speakers means inside or near. How is it possible to guess?

Is "at" more preferable in sentences like: "I was....". Is it some kind of a safer way not to make a mistake when you are tempted to use "in"? How do Americans and Britons see this?


1 Answer 1


Swan in Practical English Usage discusses this issue under the heading: at, on and in: place (page 72):

At: We very often use at before the name of a building, when we are thinking not of the building itself but of the activity that happens there.

There's a good film at the cinema in Market Street.

Eat at the Steak House - best food in town.

Sorry, I didn't phone last night - I was at the theatre.


In: In is used for position inside large areas, and in three-dimensional space (when something is surrounded on all sides).

I don't think he's in his office.

I last saw her in the car park.

He lived in the desert for three years.

On the basis of Swan's analysis, the statement I was at the cinema yesterday will most likely be interpreted as meaning that you saw a film there. The decontextualised statement I was in the cinema yesterday will probably be understood to mean simply that you were in the building, but with no indication of whether you were there to see a film or not.

The same explanation applies to the two sentences about the theatre.

The other sentence pair I was at / in a concert yesterday is different. A concert is not a building; it is an event. The usual preposition for events is at, not in:

at a concert

at a dance

at a party

at a demonstration

In answer to the last two questions in your post:

No, using at as the default preposition after I was ... is not a safe rule to follow.

Swan is a British grammarian, but I am not aware that American usage is significantly different in this aspect of grammar.

  • I disagree with the statement 'I was at the cinema yesterday' will most likely be interpreted as meaning that you saw a film there but no downvote.
    – GoDucks
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:10
  • Amazing. "In the office" vs "at work" -- now I understood it.
    – Sasha
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:11
  • @Sasha No, it's not that simple: at work is idiomatic, like at home. But you still have to choose between at and in for the office. See the post about at or in the park .
    – GoDucks
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:14
  • @GoDucks, the statement you disagree with is based on an extrapolation from Swan's distinction, which certainly rings true for me as a BrE speaker. But this is possibly an example of a BrE / AmE difference in usage. If you are an American native speaker, maybe you could offer an alternative answer from that perspective to add to the OP's (and my) understanding of the issue.
    – Shoe
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 8:35

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