On vs In When Talking About Locations

This is a very common mistake students make when talking about locations in English. In my experience, students whose first language is Portuguese tend to make this mistake more often than others. I would say that the reason for this is that in Portuguese, in some situations, the same word can be used to mean “in” and “on”.

However, when we talk about locations in English, in and on have very distinct meanings, except for some specific instances or set expressions.

IN
“In” is used when we want to say that something/someone is inside a place or another object

We use in when we talk about being located inside the following types of places:

  • Cities, provinces, states, countries
  • Rooms
  • Enclosed spaces/buildings
  • Continents
  • Nature (forests, deserts, the sky)

Other

  • in a car

ON

“On” is typically used when we talk about being on top of a surface of something. “On” is also commonly used to say that someone or something is inside some kind of public transportation (in can be used in these cases too, but on just sounds more natural).

We can use on to talk about being on top of the following types of surfaces:

  • Roads
  • Nature (islands, mountains, fields, shores)
  • Stairs
  • Planets
  • Balconies
  • Pages (including webpages)

    We can use on with the following methods of public transportation:
  • buses
  • subways (metros)
  • planes
  • ferries
  • trains

Other

  • on a bike
  • on a motorcycle

Some example sentences:

  1. Marta lives in an apartment in San Francisco
  2. My friend is waiting for me in the forest, but I am still on my bike on my way* there (on my way is a set expression that means “to be in the process of going somewhere)
  3. Please find the answer on page 5 of the textbook.

Let’s practice!!! Think of 3 sentences that talk about locations/positions with in and 3 sentences with on. Share your sentences in the comments or on Facebook. Let’s go!!

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Published by FreedomWithEnglish

Hey! I'm Emilia. I am a language lover and teacher. Also a writer and traveler. In my free time, I enjoy traveling, trying new foods, and gardening. I love to swim and kayak as well.

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