Esl English Grammar Lesson Helping You With English Propositions Ep 350

Lots of ladies shoes in a shoe shop on a wall display, used to help explain the English preposition in and on.

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Esl English Grammar - In And On Prepositions

Today we will pick two confusing English prepositions and practise using them. It might be something you need to help with your everyday English speaking practise or maybe your ESL, English grammar can confuse and we are here to help with lots of English language listening practice.

Even simple English prepositions are more difficult than they need to be, especially when you're listening to and speaking in English. For example On, couldn’t be a simpler preposition, right? True, if you were to set the context of the use of this preposition every time you used it, then it would be simple.

However, native English speakers cut corners when they are speaking and they expect the listener to fill in the gaps, based on the context of the conversation you are having.

Let me give you an example, I might say Let’s go play on the swing and I might then say Let’s move on, what I mean is Let’s move onto the next fun thing to do. The speaker assumes you understand the context of the conversation, they might even point at something while they say it, and this leaves you to guess that this use of on is actually onto. English grammar purists would say never end a sentence with a preposition.

A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.
⭐ Winston S. Churchill

So how many prepositions are there? There are a lot of English language prepositions, about 150, but today we will pick the two tricky ones and focus on them. You really need not learn them all to have a perfectly normal conversation. I’d say just 50 of the most common ones would cover 90% of what you needed for regular conversations. Our course the 500 most common words covers a lot of them and lets you practice their use.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

On Top Of5
We Might Say4
One Of Our4
A Lot Of4
Words In English4

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: ESL English Grammar Lesson Helping You With English Propositions

Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. Adept English is a very popular service – our English lessons help thousands of people to improve their understanding of the English language and their fluency in English – and it can help you too. Our podcasts are free English lessons – so I hope you enjoy them. Remember also if you want to see the written words with our English lessons, YouTube is the place to go for that.

Difference between ‘in’ and ‘on’?

One of our listeners has requested that I do a podcast on the difference between ‘in’ and ‘on’ – so thankyou to Nico who put this question to us on Facebook. So the difference between ‘in’ and ‘on’, I-N, or O-N? These are two tiny little preposition words in English, but which can cause problems. As you already know from previous podcasts, but probably also from your own experience, it’s the little words in English which can cause difficulties to language learners.

So at a simple level ‘in’ means similar to ‘inside’ and ‘on’ usually means ‘on top of’, or ‘on the surface of’. So you might say ‘My shoes are in the cupboard’ - that means the shoes are inside the cupboard and ‘My shoes are on the table’ – that means they’re on top of the table.

If I said ‘I left my sandwiches in the car’ – that would mean I’d left my sandwiches inside the car, probably on the car seat. Whereas if I said ‘I left my sandwiches on the car’ – that would probably mean that I’d put my sandwiches on the roof of the car – and then forgotten them and driven off. And probably the sandwiches wouldn’t be there at the end of the journey! Oh dear – no lunch.

‘In’ and ‘on’ with collocations

So that’s when they’re used as simple prepositions to talk about where something is, a physical location. I think where it gets confusing though, is that in English we have a lot of phrases which use a fixed preposition. These are called ‘collocations’, C-O-L-L-O-C-A-T-I-O-N-S, and these are fixed phrases, words which always go together in English, like ‘to make the bed’ or ‘to wash up’.

So these collocations have fixed prepositions – some use ‘on’ and some use ‘in’. And you really only learn collocations by hearing the phrase used lots of times, so that’s another reason why our ‘Listen & Learn’ approach is good.

From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.
⭐ Winston S. Churchill

For example, we might say ‘My house was on fire’ – that means it was burning, there were flames. Hopefully that’s not true. But we might say here also, is ‘My house went up in flames’. So that means the same thing, but we say ‘in flames’, instead of ‘on fire’. So whether you’re using ‘in’ or ‘on is determined by the collocation you’re using.

Sometimes we [can] use both, but the difference in meaning is quite subtle. So for example, If you lie ‘on your bed’, it means you’re lying on top of the covers, on top of your duvet, and if you lie ‘in your bed’ or you’re ‘in bed’, that usually means you’ve covered up, you’re under the bed covers. So to an English speaker, that ‘in’ or ‘on’ tells you much more.


‘In’ and ‘into’

Just be aware too that there’s a difference between ‘in’ and ‘into’. If it’s a fixed position, you’re inside something – that’s ‘in’. But if there’s movement, you’re going inside that’s ‘into’. ‘I’m in the garden’, but ‘I’m going into the garden’. ‘I’m in the car’, or ‘I’m getting into the car’. Lots of English speakers say ‘in’ here when they mean ‘into’ – it’s a common mistake.

‘In’ and ‘On’ with time

With time, we use both ‘in’ and ‘on’. So we might say ‘On Tuesday, in the evening I watched a film’. Or ‘On the 5th August, I’m flying to France. I like to go to France in the summer’. So with dates or days of the week, it’s ‘on’ – ‘on 23rd July’ or ‘on Monday’ but with times of day, it’s ‘in’ - ‘in the evening, in the morning’. When you combine these though, you would use ‘on’ – so you’d say ‘on Sunday morning’ meaning ‘on Sunday, in the morning’ or ‘on Wednesday evening’ meaning ‘on Wednesday, in the evening’. And with the seasons of the year, it’s ‘in’ – ‘in the summer’, ‘in the autumn’, ‘in the winter’ etc.


A photograph of little girls in Paris, in the background the Eiffel tower, during summer vacation. Used To help explain English prepositions in and on.

©️ Adept English 2020

And it’s the same when you’re talking about months – so you’d say ‘in May’ or ‘in September’, but you’d say ‘on the 30th May’ or ‘on the 12th September’ or ‘on New Year’s Day’. It’s not logical, it doesn’t really make sense and maybe it seems a bit arbitrary. But it is what sounds correct in English, to English speakers. You just have to hear these variations lots of times, so that you remember them without effort, without having to think about it.

Just a reminder about one of our courses. If you find the podcasts difficult and you find you have to look up a lot of words to understand the podcast, one of our courses might be particularly helpful to you. We have a ‘Listen & Learn’ course which uses only first 500 most common words in English. No other words than these 500 are used on the course.

Boost Your Learning With Adept English

So you gets lots of practice, There are thousands of words in English of course, but most English sentences are made up with the most common words. They’re worth learning, really well. And our Most Common 500 Words Course is worth doing for this reason. As usual with Adept English, you can improve your vocabulary just by listening, while you’re doing other things, when you’re not using all of your brain, like when you’re washing up or driving the car. Why not use that spare brain capacity to improve your English by listening to one of our courses?!

‘In’ and ‘on’ with phrasal verbs

If you’ve been learning English for a while, you’ll know about phrasal verbs. These are really common in English and phrasal verbs are part of a set phrase. Often their form is a verb and a preposition. So ‘in’ and ‘on’ may be used as part of a phrasal verb. You can ‘move in’ when you buy a new house, you can ‘hand in your notice’ when you’re leaving your job. You can ‘chip in’ if you want to make a financial contribution to something.

And if you go clothes shopping, you might ‘try on’ the clothes to see if they fit. You can ‘get on well with your neighbours’ – that means you have a good relationship with them. And you can ‘hold on’ – which in certain contexts means you wait. So often whether it’s ‘in’ or ‘on’ is determined by the phrasal verb that you’re using. Some verbs use both – ‘to take in’ or ‘to take on’, ‘to get in’ or ‘to get on’ – they all have slightly different meanings of course.

Common ‘in’ and’ ‘on collocations – some examples

Then there are a lot of phrases which use ‘in’ and ‘on’, which are fixed. You can ‘pay in cash’ – that means you pay with coins and notes – or you can ‘put it on your account’ meaning that you’ll pay later. You can meet ‘in person’ – that means in real life, or you can meet on Zoom or on Facetime. You can contact someone ‘in writing’ – meaning by letter. We might say then that you were ‘in touch’ with them.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

With your colleagues at work, you can be ‘in agreement’ – that means you agree, or you’re ‘on good terms’ – that means you’re friendly. You can be ‘on my side’ or ‘on my team’ or we could be ‘in conflict’ which means we disagree. If I tell you a secret that’s ‘in confidence’, whereas if you can’t make a decision, you might be ‘on the fence’. Sometimes I drive to places in my car, sometimes I go on the train, or on the bus. So as you can see, a lot of the time, whether you use ‘in’ or ‘on depends on the particular phrase you’re using.

‘In’ or ‘on’ quiz

How about a quiz to check your knowledge of ‘in’ and ‘on’ collocations? See if you know whether it’s ‘in’ or ‘on’ – the answers will be in the transcript. Here goes. I’ll say each one twice. Oh – and where there’s an ‘in’ or an ‘on’, you’ll hear this noise.

  • I’ve got your mother ____ the phone and she wants to speak to you ____ private.

    I’ll go again!

  • I’ve got your mother ____ the phone and she wants to speak to you ____ private.

    So you’re looking at ‘in or on?’ for each of those beeps.

  • He’s been ____ an accident ____ his car, ____ the motorway, but he’s OK.

  • Strawberries are ____ season ____ the summer.

  • My boss is ____ duty tonight and she’s not ____ a good mood.

  • I’m ____ the middle of something right now, but I promise I’ll be ____ time for the meal this evening.

  • My doctor says I’m ____ good health and is ____ agreement that I can stop taking my medication.

  • ____ average, nurses are ____ duty twenty days ____ a month.

  • They live ____ the building, ____ the 4th floor.

    If you want answers to those, have a look in the transcript.

So I hope Nico, that this answers your question – and that it’s helpful to other people too. To recap, if you’re talking about real actual physical location of something, ‘in’ means ‘inside’ and ‘on’ means ‘on top of’. But there are phrasal verbs which use ‘in’ or ‘on’ and there are lots of collocations, words which go together, using ‘in’ and ‘on’, so the best way to learn the difference is to listen to lots of English language material, lots of English lessons so it just becomes automatic.


Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.



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