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The Correct time to use “at” and “in”

By English Tutor:

The correct time to use 'at' and 'in'. It seems almost unimaginable that people have a problem identifying when to use the afore mentioned. My house mate asked me this question: Which is grammaticallycorrect? Saying: I am in Pretoria or I am at Pretoria. Before we can answer that question, we need to explain why the one is correct and the other incorrect, all these depending on what the context is and what you are saying, including the connotation. Some sentences might not be 100% wrong so to speak, but they are open to ambiguity and unless one intends to imply a double meaning to the things they say, then grammar encourages the correct use of adverbs and prepositions.

Explaining – at

  • At has to do with indicating a point in space, time or the period of time.
  • At is a preposition.
  • A preposition is used before a noun or pronoun to show its relationship with other words. E.g. in from, to out of, on behalf of etc. These are some common sentences with use –at

    • I am at the train station.
    • The train will come at 11am.
    • At the dawn of the 21st century.
    • She made it at the nick of time.
    • She threw the ball at me.
    • The boys are at the game.
  • Explaining –in
  • In can be used as an adverb part in phrasal verb.
  • An adverb is a word that is used in grammar to describe those words that add more information about place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc to a verb, an adjective, a phrase or another adverb. E.g. In 'incredibly deep', just in time, 'too quickly'.
  • In can also be used as a preposition in phrasal verbs. These phrasal verbs can be used when indicating place: at a point within the area or space of the subject. These are some common sentences that use –in.

    • The highest mountain in the world.
    • I will be in the country next week.
    • I read about it in the newspaper.
    • She learnt to drive in three weeks.
    • The children are in the house.

These seem easy enough to assign correct grammar to make the sentence; they are simple sentences. Why is it that when the question asked by my house mate, many might not answer it as easily? Pretoria is a geographical location with man made boundaries. Therefore one should think of it as a container and a fish. You don't say the fish is at the fish bowl.
Rather the fish is in the fish bowl. The idea of containment should be applied when referring to a country or Pretoria.
I am at Pretoria. (Incorrect)
I am in Pretoria. (Correct).

One sentence that can clarify this is the following one.

She is in the theatre. (Improper) Should you wish to say this sentence using in, then you are bound my grammar to clarify. Theatre is more than a location; it is a word that carries function. Unless you are pointing at the theatre as you say this sentence, you cannot say that someone is in a place unless there is clear containment.
She is at the theatre. (Correct) This sentence is acceptable because it allows for generalization.

Let's try more examples:

I was in a party last night. (Clarify) A party is not a physical or tangible, therefore using at allows for the removal of the geographical context in adds.
I was ata party last night.

I was in a club with the girls. (Clarify) you can get away with using this sentence, but it needs clarification
I was at a club with the girls.

I am in home. (Incorrect)
I am at home. (Home is not a physical place or tangible, home is the word used to refer to a house or geographical location with people we call family or friends). In is used to express containment, physical boundaries to be more exact. It is the same reason one cannot say: without it needing clarification of what the intended meaning is.

I am at the house. (Location vague leaving generalization and ambiguity as it is open to interpretation)

I am in the house. (Location established = containment)

The baby is at bed. (Incorrect)
The baby is in bed.

The children are in school (clarify context) this sentence is not grammatically incorrect; it just needs clarity of context and intended meaning.
The children are at school (location in time)

I will be in work later this week. (Incorrect)
I will be at work later this week. (correct – work is not a physical location so it cannot be used with reference to physical boundaries or the idea of containment )

I was at the office all night last night. (Generalized sentence – there are many offices in the world, this sentence allows for its vagueness to be acceptable).

I was in the office all night last night. (Specific sentence – so you have to be speaking to someone who knows the office where you were or pointing the office you were in).

Some sentences make it easy to spot the mistake and also getting away with it, and some don't. For the sake of grammar, just because it sounds wrong or right doesn't make it so.

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