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Prepositions Made Easy: In, On, and At

by Justin on June 17, 2013 Are prepositions really so difficult? What if I told you that IN JUST 5 MINUTES I could help you solve some of your most confusing preposition problems? English learners everywhere are confused about prepositions, and members of the Real Life English International Community always say its one of their biggest difficulties. But with the right strategies, prepositions DO NOT need to be so complicated. If you take a few minutes to learn a few tricks, and visualize the problem in a new way, your experience learning prepositions will be a lot easier. This is gonna be fun! Ready? Today, were going to explore how the prepositions AT, ON, and IN are used with TIME and PLACE, and use a formula that works in around 90% of cases. Its not perfect, but it gives you a great foundation to learn the exceptions. Given the fact that most people are visual learners, and most prepositions are best taught in a visual way, well also use graphic organizers and a video lesson to teach this.

The Inverted Pyramid

Before we explain a bit more, lets take a good look at the picture one more time below. Try to get a general idea of the organization and proportion. The first thing I want you to recognize, and try your best to visualize as you learn these, there is a general flow with both time and location from general to specific. Were going to explain it in the following way, first with time, then with location: 1. The TOP, which is BIGGER and more GENERAL 2. The MIDDLE, which is SMALLER and MORE SPECIFIC (ON) 3. The BOTTOM, which is SMALLEST and the MOST SPECIFIC (AT) The image used is a modification of the The Atonin Time Pyramid from Marcelo Montecinos at

Prepositions of Time
IN- The pyramids TOP (wider), which is BIGGER and more GENERAL:

Description: Bigger periods of time: Centuries, Decades, Years, Months Examples: in the 20th century, in the 1980s, in March, in the third week of April, in the future Exceptions: in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon

ON- The pyramids MIDDLE part, which is SMALLER and MORE SPECIFIC:

Description: Days, or periods of time shorter than three days Examples: on my birthday, on Saturday, on the weekend (United States), on June 8th Exceptions: on my lunch break, on time

AT- The pyramids BOTTOM (pointed), the SMALLEST, and the MOST SPECIFIC:

Description: Specific times or small time periods. Examples: at 9:00 PM, at lunch, at dinner, at the start of the party, at sunrise, at the start of the movie, at the moment Exceptions: at night, at the weekend (England)

Prepositions of Location
IN - The TOP (wider), which is BIGGER and more GENERAL:

Description: In larger areas (countries, states, cities, neighborhoods) Examples: in the United States, in Miami, in my neighborhood Exceptions: in downtown (I work in downtown)


Description: a longer area, street, beach, river Examples: on Broadway Street, on the beach, on my street

AT The pyramids BOTTOM (pointed), the SMALLEST, and the MOST SPECIFIC:

Description: the address or specific location, specific points. Examples: at 345 broadway street, at the store, at my house

Prepositions of Placement
The mind map pyramid below explains TIME in the same way we did above (only this one is not inverted), but it also introduces prepositions PLACE/PLACEMENT, which we will focus on here.

IN for enclosed spaces and personal modes of transportation

Enclosed Space: in the kitchen, in the house, the water is in the glass Personal Modes of Transportation: get in the car, my friend is in the taxi

ON for surfaces and public modes of transportation

Surfaces: on the floor, on the wall, the book is on the table, on a page, I put on my clothes (my clothes are on my body) Public Modes of Transportation: on the bus, on the plane, on a boat, on a ship, Exceptions: on my motorcycle, on my bike (these are personal modes of transportation, but we use on)

AT for specific point (the same as prepositions of location)

at the bus stop, at the cinema, at the corner, at the top of the hill, at the mall

Video Lesson Explaining IN-ON-AT (7:00)

Now that weve simplified the use of prepositions IN, ON, and AT with mind maps and simple explanations, heres a short and simple video lesson from English For Brazilians creator, John Clites. (Note: this video was made for Brazilians, but everything in it is applicable to English learners from ALL countries)

Becoming Friends with Prepositions

Again, these rules are not an exact science, but they will help you get past 90% of the preposition confusion that most people encounter with IN, ON, and AT. After you learn these techniques, you will not only speak a lot better, and with a lot more confidence, but the final 5 to 10% of prepositions wont seem too hard. It will probably take some study time and some memorization of collocations (in the kitchen, at the mall, but you will see that its a lot more manageable. The point is that you dont want to be thinking about the rules too much when youre communicating. This will help make most of the process unconscious and automatic, which is exactly what fluency is. You can use Anki, a really effective vocabulary study tool, or other free study resources that can make your process a lot easier to learn using these prepositions. Another thing that will naturally help is reading and making English a part of your life. These are all very important parts of the Real Life English methodology. You can learn more about how we teach with the Complimentary Real Life English mini-course, or check out the 5 Best Tools for Learning English Online by yourself. - See more at: