Can we say:

I always go to work on my car.

or it should be rather:

go to work by my car


go to work in my car

Which one is the most correct?

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    Possible duplicate of "In" and "on": How can I decide which one to use for vehicles? – Nathan Tuggy Mar 17 '16 at 19:21
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    Please don't vote to close this for being a duplicate of the question about vehicles in general. I've posted an answer that explains the ambiguity resulting from phrases specific to the word "work". – Ben Kovitz Mar 17 '16 at 21:18
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    How about "I always drive to work"? – jtbandes Mar 17 '16 at 22:16
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    "Going to work on your car" means doing maintenance or repair on the car. – Lee Daniel Crocker Mar 17 '16 at 23:58

If you sit on the roof of your car when you go to work, it's correct.

If, like the rest of us, you sit inside the car behind the steering wheel, you would say

I always go to work in my car.

When talking about modes or transport, you can use by

I always go to work by car

I always go to work by train

...note that there's no "my" here, because we are talking about a mode of transport not a particular vehicle.

  • Interesting how "on a bus" is OK (meaning in the bus, not on its roof) despite there being no real physical difference – M.M Mar 17 '16 at 22:09
  • @M.M But there is a physical difference... Size. We ride on a bus, but in a car... On a cruise ship but in a boat. And as you note, on the train. If the mode of transport is large enough for you to walk around inside it, then "on" is more appropriate than "in". – Daniel T. Mar 17 '16 at 23:20
  • I have a van that you can walk around in :) – M.M Mar 17 '16 at 23:22
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    :-) You must be pretty short. :-) My wife believes it has more to do with whether we are talking about mass transportation. So if your van is for personal use, then you travel in it, but the 6 paying passengers that you are taking to the airport are traveling on it. – Daniel T. Mar 17 '16 at 23:26
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    @Joshua, The justification of this that I've heard is that early forms of public transport were usually open topped, so "on" was a more a more appropriate preposition to use. birminghamhistory.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/… – JavaLatte Mar 18 '16 at 6:10

If you are talking about how you get to work, then

go to work by ( my ) car
got to work in my car

would be correct.

However, if you are a mechanic and are often working on your car, then

I always go to work on my car ( on the weekends )

I work on my car on the weekends (AmE)
I work on my car at the weekends (BrE)

would be appropriate to say you are fixing or modifying your car during the weekends.

  • I think that the last example should be "I always work on my car at the weekend" or "I always go to the garage to work on my car at the weekend". "Go to work on" is a rarely used idiom. – JavaLatte Mar 17 '16 at 19:03
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    @JavaLatte That's true, I was just mimicking the syntax the OP used to show how using on my car might be interpreted. – Peter Mar 17 '16 at 19:05
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    @JavaLatte - You're right. Come to think of it, though, I'd probably say, "I always drive my car to work," not, "I always go to work in my car" (unless maybe I have a job delivering pizzas or something). It's funny how so many ELL questions ask, "Is this wording correct?" and the answer ends up being, "Well, it's not exactly incorrect, but..." – J.R. Mar 17 '16 at 19:09
  • @J.R. Well you're not exactly wrong about saying that, but... :) Brilliant! +1 – Peter Mar 17 '16 at 19:14
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    "go to work by my car" feels wrong to me , "by car" is OK . I think it should be a general method that follows "by", not a specific instance of a vehicle. – M.M Mar 17 '16 at 22:07

Welcome to the confusing world of English prepositions. English prepositions sometimes have very little definite meaning by themselves. Sometimes they help form familiar phrases which convey the intended meaning, and the phrase as a whole must be understood separately from the individual words. The following explanation is going to be confusing, but it will explain a lot about how English works.

In this sentence:

I always go to work on my car.

there are two familiar phrases competing for the word "work", each with a different meaning:

go to work

work on (some) car

"Go to work" has two common meanings: (1) to travel to the place where you do your job; and (2) to perform an intense activity that uses a special skill or ability, especially if the activity exerts an effect on something else. The first meaning is much more common and familiar. Meaning (2) is often intended when the phrase is followed by "on"; for example, "The icebreakers went to work on the St. Clair river" means that the icebreakers broke up the ice in the river.

To "work on a car" means to repair it, or to alter it mechanically (for example, by lowering the suspension or just by doing routine maintenance like changing the spark plugs).

For a person to hear "go to work" as the familiar phrase meaning "travel to my job", they would have to understand "on my car" in a way that makes sense with that meaning. As you will see below, "on my car" suggests a very unexpected meaning, so a listener will probably understand "I always go to work on my car" to mean that you "always" leave to perform mechanical work on your car or that performing mechanical work on your car brings out your skills and enthusiasm especially well.

Another familiar phrase is:

go by vehicle

This means to travel using the kind of vehicle mentioned. For example, "I go to work by car" or "I go to work by train." In this phrase, you never refer to a specific vehicle, only a kind of vehicle. So, it sounds wrong to say "I go to work by my car" because "my car" is a specific vehicle. That sentence suggests that the place where you do your work is near ("by") your car.

The most common meanings of:

do an activity on something

do an activity in something

are to do the activity while positioned on or inside the thing. In these phrases, the prepositions work the way they do in the Romance languages: they introduce an adverbial phrase that describes a spatial relationship between the verb and the "something"; they don't change the meaning of the verb.

So, in "I always go to work on my car", if a person hears "go to work" as meaning "travel to work", then the sentence would mean that whenever you travel to work, you are positioned on the roof of your car. That's probably not what you intended to say.

I always go to work in my car.

means that you are positioned inside your car while you travel to work, and presumably you are driving the car.

This all means that in order to learn English, you can't simply remember the meanings of individual prepositions. You have to learn entire phrases. When you know enough phrases, then you start to understand when they compete for a common word, and how to choose your words to prevent that competition.

  • 1
    "I went to work on a bus" has ambiguity that can't be resolved by the methods you suggest in your answer. For me anyway, I actually use different intonation for the two cases although I'm not sure how to describe this formally. For the mechanical repair, "work-on" runs closer together, almost like one word; for going to job, work has slightly heavier stress – M.M Mar 17 '16 at 22:17
  • @M.M Indeed one could say much more than I did above. I agree with you about the importance of intonation (and especially rhythm). I think the overall "method" explained above, though, is basically right: you have to know phrases, not just parts of speech and rules. Do you just mean that "go to work on a bus" (travel on a bus) involves phrases that I didn't cover above, or a wholly different principle? I don't think I could cover all semantically nearby phrases. I limited it to ones that compete in "go to work on a car"; I don't think "(travel) on a bus/boat/plane/etc." competes there. – Ben Kovitz Mar 17 '16 at 22:42

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