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Which one is correct?

  • There are high hills on Skye
  • There are high hills in Skye
  • There are high hills at Skye

And is it the same if I replace "Skye" with "Iceland", "Greenland", or "Antarctica"? And if I replace "There are high hills" with "Life is good", "He is working", or any other construct?

I've found one forum post and one SE question addressing the issue, but I'm not sure if the answer can be generalised, and I would like a more elaborate answer.

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One isn't more correct than another, as the appropriate preposition is highly dependent on context. Broadly speaking, we would use

  • on when referring to the island as a geologic or geographic feature: the roads on Hokkaido; the seed vault on Svalbard
  • in when referring to a political entity or territory: the schools in Iceland; mobile phone service in Tasmania
  • at is rarely used for islands, but can be applied if the name is used as metonymy or synecdoche: the ferry stops at Kos and at Rhodes.

As with any topic where politics is involved, usages can be tricky where a name can refer either to the geographic island or to a political entity on it; be careful about describing this as in Ireland, for example, as "Ireland" alone usually refers to the country of the Republic of Ireland, excluding the counties which are part of the UK.

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  • 1
    What would you use for Antarctica? The research station is in Antarctica, or The research station is on Antarctica? It's not really a political entity, or perhaps it is...
    – gerrit
    Aug 7 '13 at 16:15
  • 3
    Most English speakers would consider Antarctica a continent, not an island, and everything is in continents and subcontinental regions except perhaps geological contexts where you are referring to tectonic plates: the station is in Antarctica as another may be in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in Oceania, etc.
    – choster
    Aug 7 '13 at 16:27
  • "Ireland" is probably a bad choice for this example, as it's something of a political minefield - I know several Northern Irish people who would definitely bristle at the idea that Northern Ireland isn't included in the word "Ireland". (And there would be many people in the RoI who would be angry at the idea that it is.)
    – ZsigE
    Sep 11 '14 at 12:34
  • @choster in this sense, what would you use for "small huts have been built to accommodate visitors in/on island" ? which one of the definitions you've made above the context fit in with? May 4 '17 at 8:44
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There are high hills/Life is good on Skye

but

There are high hills/Life is good/He is working in Iceland/Greenland/Antarctica.

As for the "he is working" with "Skye", to my taste it would sound nice as

He is working at the Isle of Skye

But it sounds weird to Tristan (see his comment below), so probably I'm wrong here, not being a native speaker. Maybe "on" should be used here.

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Not being a native speaker I can be wrong, but I think it would be defendable to say that one should use "in" when it could be replaced with the term "within the boundaries of". In all other cases on is appropriate.

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