the difference between words: at and in


Today’s entry is a seemingly simple one, but it’s something that confuses the majority of my students. It is the difference in usage between the prepositions “at” and “in”.

There are several ways to use prepositions, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’m going to focus on using them to talk about places.

When we are talking about places, we use “at” to talk about a location such as a school, store, hospital, etc. These locations exist within a wider, spread out area. We use “in” to talk about that wider area. For example:

Right now, I’m at a hospital in Brentwood.

When you called I was shopping at the department store.

A: Where do you live?

B: I live in Shinjuku in Tokyo.

We use “at” for ‘hospital’ and ‘department store’ because they are small locations, we use “in” for ‘Brentwood’, ‘Shinjuku’ and ‘Tokyo’ because they are wider areas. It doesn’t matter how big the wider area is; we always use “in” for these situations. Therefore, we could say “in New York”, “in the United States”, “in North America”, and “in the world”. However, if we talk about planets, such as Earth, Mars, or Jupiter, we use “on”.

It’s important to note that it is possible to say “in” for a location such as a school, store, hospital, etc. In these cases, we are talking about being physically inside the building. Therefore, if person A and person B are at a hospital and person A is inside the building and person B is outside the building, we can say that person A is “in the hospital” and “at the hospital”, but person B is only “at the hospital”. We CANNOT say person B is “in the hospital” because they are not inside the physical building.


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