On December 10, 2018, I wrote about the preposition “on”. On March 31, 2019, I posted an article about the preposition “at”. Please read those again if you’d like to review their grammatical properties.
Remember that prepositions are there to show the relationship of one thing to another, or the position of an object. The most common types of prepositions refer to time, place, and movement.
Here’s a simple sentence: “The dog is in the bath.”
In this English sentence, “in” explains the relationship between the dog (a noun) and the bath (another noun). In this example, it is a preposition of place.
Generally speaking, we use “in” like this when we want to say that something is located in a defined area, usually with some kind of clear borders or edges – that spot can be physical, like a bath, or abstract, like a sentence. When the dog is in the bath, it’s not on the floor, or in another space like a cupboard, or outside. You know where the edge of the bath is, so you know where the dog is. The animal is not somewhere near the bath, under the bath, or over it. The dog occupies part of the physical space of the bath.
Around your home, the dog could get out of the bath and then be in various locations – for example, in the garage, in the bedroom, or in the kitchen. These rooms are specific areas inside your house, where the walls define the space. The dog could also be in the back yard, in the front yard, in the driveway, or even in your car. These are places outside your house, but you know where they start and finish. The yard probably has a fence, the driveway might be gravel or some kind of paving, your car has a metal shell that encases you when you operate it.
You can make this bigger. Your house and its yard are in a suburb, the suburb is in a city, the city is in a region or state, and the state is in a country. There are nearly 200 countries in the world. However, we are on Earth, because the planet has a physical surface. “The world” is a more abstract concept, and each country is part of it, and therefore in it.
Remember, you travel in a taxi, in a truck, or in a rowboat, but you are on a plane, train, bus, or ship. However, you could be in the cockpit, in the dining car, in the luggage compartment, or in your cabin, respectively. If it’s smaller, you’re more likely to be in it.
Despite referring to all this transport, “in” is not a preposition of movement. You cannot be in your bed without getting into it first. “Into” leaves you in something.
Look through a telescope, and you might see some stars in the sky. Read some articles in a newspaper and an exciting adventure story in a book. You might see somebody you know in a photo…or even in a movie or a television show! Perhaps your cousin is in a school play, and your seats for that play are in the middle of the row. These are all defined places.
You might think that a hospital is a defined place, and it is – but it’s also an exception in English grammar. If you’re at a hospital, you might work there, or maybe you’re just visiting. When you’re in hospital, that means you’re a patient receiving medical treatment. Similar rules apply to jails – being at a jail is quite different to being in jail.
“In” can also be a preposition of time. Just like space, it’s a defined area of time, with a beginning and an end. If you arrive at the airport in time, you get there before your plane leaves: the time starts when your plane arrives at the airport and ends when the plane takes off. Parts of the day are specified: most people don’t drink alcohol in the morning, but they might have a drink in the afternoon or in the evening, but you go to sleep at night. Then there are seasons, months, and years – it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Christmas is always in December. The Second World War ended in 1945.
One use of “in” that sometimes confuses non-native speakers of English is when people mention the state of affairs existing after a fixed period of time, starting now. You could argue that “in” is valid here because it refers to the aftereffects of what might happen during that period. For example, when making a business plan, a CEO may have to estimate what the economy will be like in five years’ time. That means five years from now. And lunch will be in half an hour. This indicates 30 minutes from now.
Perhaps you’ve seen “in” employed in other ways too, but these are the most common ones when it’s working as a preposition. How else have you seen it used?