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Which of them is the proper preposition to use.

Most people say "on the shelf", but I have seen "in the shelf" as well.

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    Where have you seen "in the shelf"? Context can make a big difference. For example, I might say, "There's a break in the shelf." Or, if I'm talking about the continental shelf, I might say, "There are clams in the shelf." Insofar as books go, it might make sense to say "in the shelf" if we are dealing with a barrister bookcase. – J.R. Apr 6 '16 at 9:37
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"On" means that "it is on top of something" (like a tree). "In" means that "it is inside of something" (like a cupboard). On the shelf also means: Not in active use or consideration; For eg: We'll have to put some of those plans on the shelf for a while.

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  • We need to be careful about making prepositions seem so simple. Sure, "on" might generally mean "on top of something," but not always. Consider these: His eye is on the sparrow; that store is on Main Street; he has been on the phone for hours; I heard that song on the radio; I got some sleep on the train; the baby fell asleep on her stomach; I've always wanted to live on the beach; that term paper is on my laptop; Bob cut his arm on the pitchfork and has been on pain meds for two days; the drinks are on me. Some of those could be ambiguous (if not amusing) if on means "on top of". – J.R. Apr 6 '16 at 9:56

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