In, On, At, and To

[Editor’s Note: this is another one that was written for the TLG blog. It compares some prepositions in English and Georgian that tend to give language learners a bit of trouble.]

Prepositions are a common source of mistakes among Georgian students of English. It’s not uncommon to hear “I want to go in America” or “open your books at page 106”, and many of us have fumbled for explanations of why “in the park” and “at the park” are both right but subtly different in meaning. Grammar books often fail to produce logical rules for prepositions, resorting instead to lists of words or word categories that students are expected to memorize along with each preposition.

Imagine this from a student’s perspective: you can be in or at a park, but on or at a beach, but in or on a bus. When you go into a bus, you’re on it, but when you go into a park, you’re at it. When you go into the sea you’re no longer on the beach but you’re still at the beach, and when you go back onto the beach you’re no longer in the sea but you’re still at the sea.

It’s clear that explaining this on a case by case basis is going to cause confusion – no student wants to memorize a set of acceptable prepositions with every noun along with what subtle difference in meaning each preposition conveys. Furthermore, when students encounter a word they don’t know a rule for, they will tend to fall back on their native language for clues, which in this case is bad because English and Georgian handle prepositions quite differently. Our students would definitely benefit from knowing some kind of general rule or guideline pointing them toward with prepositions to use in which circumstances.

And yet, this is one of the cases in which native speakers rely so heavily on intuition that figuring out and articulating the actual rules we use may be difficult or impossible. This post lays out a few ways of looking at prepositions in English, along with an explanation of how the same meanings are expressed in Georgian, in hopes of enhancing our ability to explain the small but challenging words in, at, on, and to.

“To” would seem to be the easiest, as it is the only directional preposition of the four. It is not like the others. While “in”, “at”, and “on” generally express a location (where you are), “to” expresses a destination or direction (where you’re headed). The only reason this poses a problem is that while English marks this distinction primarily with prepositions, Georgian marks it primarily on the verb.

For example, in English we would say “I am in America” but “I am going to America”. In Georgian, the “in” and “to” would both be translated the same way – “-ში” (-shi), and speakers would rely on the verb to make the distinction between where you are and where you are going. In the case of “I am in” and “I am going to”, English is actually redundant in this regard, using both a locational verb (am) and locational preposition (in) in the first and a directional verb (going) and directional preposition (to) in the second example. However, there are other cases where the preposition is the only distinction – for instance, “I am walking in the park” and “I am walking to the park.” In Georgian these ideas would be expressed with entirely different verbs – something like “I am in the park, walking” and “I am going to the park on foot” – or at the very least with the same verb root marked with different preverbs.

The same applies to “on” and “to” – in English we’d say “I live on the third floor” but “I am going to the third floor”. In Georgian that “on” and that “to” would both be translated as “-ზე” (-ze).

The next easiest would be the distinction between “in” and “on” – as a general rule, “in” locates something as being contained within an area or volume, while “on” locates something as resting upon or against a surface. In terms of literal spatial relations, this is straightforward and translates reasonably well into Georgian – most of the time “in” will be translated “-ში” and “on” will be translated “ზე”. For more metaphorical uses, sometimes it can be difficult to see what, if any, relationship there is between the general rule and the specific uses – we say “on a diet”, “on a committee”, or “on vacation”, but do we really think of diets, committees, and vacations as having or being surfaces? In this case it may be more useful to think of “on” as representing some kind of duration or course upon which you are progressing – an extension of the idea of being on a road – and “in” as representing a more complete situation or focusing on the situational rather than durational aspect (“in trouble”, “in debt”, “in doubt”) – an extension of the idea of being fully engulfed in something. Consider the subtle difference between being “on fire” and “in flames” – “in flames” implies a more thorough and complete burning while “on fire” could have a more limited meaning.

“At” is where the main trouble lies. If we think of “in” as locating something within a space and “on” as locating something upon a surface, we could then think of “at” as locating something at a point. “At” is the preposition of most extreme abstraction, of the least determination, and considers a location without specifying any kind of dimensionality. If you’re “at” the store, “at” doesn’t specify any kind of relationship between yourself and the spatial extension of the store – whether you’re inside the store or outside it, or above it or below it. “At” zooms out and treats the store like a point and then treats the thing you are locating as sharing that point.

One of the benefits of this abstraction is that it allows us to use a definite article when talking about a previously unspecified location. You can say “I’m at the store” without having to introduce “the store”, whereas saying “I’m in the store” assumes that the listener already knows which store you are talking about. “I’m at the store” treats “the store” not as a building with goods in it, but as an abstraction, a summation of the entire category of stores.

While “at” is spatially the most ambiguous, in terms of duration/situation “at” is the most specific – it refers only to specific points in terms of time or travel. You can be on a path, but you are at any given point on that path – you are at the end of the road, or at the corner of State Street and Cedar Avenue. You can be on a river but at the river bend. Something can happen in the morning, but it happens at 9:00 am.

Thus, in some sense, “in” and “on” are bigger than “at”: “in” is a container, “on” is a path, and “at” is a single point on that path. You can be in New York, on Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 34th Street. You can be there in the summer, on a Wednesday, at 3:00.

“At”, like “to”, is tricky for Georgians because its various functions are distributed among a series of postpositions. Where English uses “at” for location, Georgian uses the equivalent of “in” or “on”. Georgian also has a postposition “-თან” (-tan) which roughly means “with”, “at”, or “by” – for instance, “she’s at the window”, “she’s by the window”, “he’s at the doctor”, “he’s by the store”, “I was with my friends”, and “I was at my friend’s place” would all be translated using “-თან”, but unlike with “at”, “-თან” cannot be used to replace “-ში” or “-ზე”. In Georgian, you can either be in the store or by the store, but never just “at the store” – in other words, there’s no way to express the kind of spatial ambiguity conveyed by English “at”.

The ideas contained in this post – the ways of thinking about English prepositions and the ways they differ from Georgian prepositions – won’t give a student everything he or she needs to use English prepositions perfectly. There are still weird exceptions in English, and there are still cases where intuition fails or where Georgians simply have different intuitions than English speakers. There are even cases where English speakers have different intuitions from each other – for instance, the infamous “at the weekend” (conceiving of the end of the week as a single point) vs. “on the weekend” (conceiving of the weekend as a short duration of time) – although of course as an American I feel that the general rules favor the latter interpretation.

What these ideas hopefully will do, however, is give the reader a sense of the order behind the madness of English prepositions as well as some hints at the kind of language we can use to articulate the rules and the research directions we can head in if we want to find out more on the topic. I hope they will convince you that aiming at developing some kind of intuition about prepositions is a viable and worthwhile endeavor, and that we are not stuck just enumerating every single use of in, at, on, and to, over and over again, to students who stand no chance of memorizing them all. Finally, I hope they’ll inspire you to think more deeply about the kinds of cognitive processes that lie behind the grammar of a language – about how language relies heavily on metaphor and about how cool it is that we can take language designed for very simple things and, without too much trouble, extend it to be used with very complicated things.

*******

This post owes a great debt to the Purdue OWL, particularly this page. The OWL is a fabulous resource for the technical aspects of English writing, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style guidelines.

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5 Responses to In, On, At, and To

  1. I was confused when I always saw Georgian English teachers “At Class” on the chalkboard at the beginning of every class, thinking that it was perhaps a crude pseudo-anglicism. But then I found at that in Georgian classes, the teachers begin class by writing “კლასში”, making “At Class” merely an awkward translation.

    • panoptical says:

      Maybe a reference from “At the lesson” (which I also find awkward, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on)?

  2. Anonymous says:

    In case of “in” and “on” there are also some differences due to perceptional differences. Such as Perception of things or spaces are different by Georgians. e.g. Native English speaker says “on the street” because street is imagined as a flat surface while Georgians say “In the street” assuming they are standing “in the street” Perceiving street includes it’s buildings and surroundings so they are standing in the middle or into the space. “which or that” it is also confusing sometimes.
    Articles and Prepositions are the most commonly made mistakes by Georgians. We do not have words similar to the “a” or “the”, despite all of these facts I believe we are able to learn easier “indirect speech” or “Conditional Sentences”

    • panoptical says:

      English speakers use both “in the street” and “on the street” in different contexts to mean different things. For instance, we would usually say “the kids are playing in the street” (compare “the kids are playing on the sidewalk”) but “the car is parked on the street” (compare “the car is parked in the garage”). And if we said “the car is parked in the street” it would imply that the car was parked in a way that would block traffic.

      On the other hand, Georgians don’t say “in the street” unless they are speaking English, because – for the reasons I have outlined in this post – you can’t just translate “ქუჩაში” as “in the street” because “-ში” sometimes means “in” and sometimes means “to” and sometimes means “at”, etc. Anyway there are also cases where Georgians say “ქუჩაზე”.

      I’m not well-studied enough in Georgian to make a judgment about the metaphorical basis of “ში” and “ზე”, so it’s hard for me to say whether Georgians and Americans use the same metaphor but perceive certain spaces differently, or are actually just using a different metaphor.

  3. That’s such an interesting post! English is my second language and sometimes I catch myself having to think which preposition I should use. Somehow, though, when I used to teach English – in another life it feels – I was more confident at (?) it! Greetings from Tbilisi!

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