Communication, Grammar, Writing

Confused About “In” and “At”?

If English is your first language, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between prepositions such as “in” and “at”. This is something you learned at a very young age, and using the right one just comes naturally to you. However, if you are a non-native English speaker, prepositions are often the words that cause the most confusion.

In a recent article, we went over the difference between “in” and “on”. Now let’s do the same with “in” and “at”. Both of these words are used for various purposes, but for this article we will focus on how they apply to locations.

“In the office” or “at the office”?

Let’s dive right in and start with an example. At TextRanch, our editors are sometimes asked if “in the office” is correct, or if it should be written as “at the office”. Actually, both “in” and “at” are grammatically correct. The difference is one of meaning.

“At the office” is a general term that refers to an office building or workspace. If someone tells you they are “at the office”, they could be anywhere within that workspace such as in front of the elevators, near the water cooler, in a conference room, or even outdoors in the parking lot or courtyard.

“In the office” refers to a smaller, specific space within the office building. It is usually enclosed or separate from the rest of the workplace. Often, it is used by one person, such as a supervisor or a professor, if it’s an academic setting.

Here are some examples:

We are having the meeting in Rashida’s office.

I think the journals are in Professor Park’s office.

Billy is in the principal’s office again.

I am in my office right now, but I plan to go out for lunch soon.

Sue had to pick up her mother at the doctor’s office.

Now let’s go shopping…

Other locations follow this same pattern, with “at” referring to a place in general and “in” referring to a specific, separate space. For example, if you are “at” the supermarket, you could be anywhere inside that store, or even on the property outside the store. You would only say you were “in” the supermarket if you wanted to emphasize that you were inside the building. You would also use “in” to refer to certain spaces within the supermarket, such as “in” the frozen foods aisle or “in” the produce department.

Here are some more examples to make things clearer for you:

My daughter and her friends are at the mall.

Clare bought her shoes at Macy’s.

I am in the boys’ department at Macy’s with my son.

Barbara texted me and said she is at the bookstore. She found some Agatha Christie novels in the mystery section.

Two of my friends were in the bakery when the fire broke out.

Regarding that last sentence, normally someone would be “at” the bakery. In this context, however, you would use “in” to highlight the fact that your friends were inside the actual building when the fire started.

Around the house

If someone says they are “at home”, it means they could be anywhere on the property, either indoors or outdoors. Similar to the bakery example above, “in the house” would be used to emphasize that someone or something is actually inside the house. For specific rooms, “in” is the correct preposition.

Here is a little story to give you a better sense of how this works:

We were at home when the tornado sirens started blaring. The dog was already in the house, but the cat was somewhere in the garden. My son managed to find her and bring her inside before the storm got really nasty. We all spent the evening in the basement. Afterwards, when we went upstairs, I realized I had forgotten to shut the windows in the dining room, so the floor was damp. Other than that, everything was okay at our house. However, at our neighbor’s house across the street, a huge tree limb came down.

Knowing the difference between “in” and “at” will help you avoid some common writing mistakes. If you still need some help, click the blue box below. Our TextRanch editors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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