Understanding Prepositions of Time
What are prepositions?
Prepositions are words that define the relationship between words in a sentence. They usually connect a noun with a verb.
There are three basic prepositions used when we are referring to time. In, At and On.
Choosing the correct preposition is one of the most challenging parts of learning English. If you ask a native speaker why they use “at” rather than “on”, their response will probably be something like, “I don’t know. We just do.” They aren’t being difficult, they are just being honest. The truth is, there isn’t always a clear reason as to why we use a certain preposition, which is why it can be such a difficult part of learning.
To try to make it easier and hopefully a little bit more logical, below is a breakdown of when to use in, at and on in reference to time, along with a picture that may help you to visualize it’s meaning:
IN: If you look at the illustration, you can see that IN is represented by a star inside of a space. If we apply this same idea to time, then we would consider periods such as:
- minutes, seconds, hours
- days, weeks, months
- years, decades, centuries, ages
- periods of the day
* Try to think of spaces of time.
- I will be there in 5 minutes.
- Obama was elected President of the USA in 2008.
- She is having a baby in 9 months.
- I grew up in the 90’s.
- It gets very cold in winter.
- I always drink a cup of coffee in the morning.
ON: Looking at the diagram, ON is represented by a star lying on a surface. If we apply that idea to time then we use ON when we speak about:
to indicate that something will happen when we (the star) arrive on that specific day or date (the surface).
- My birthday is on October 7th.
- We open gifts on Christmas Day.
- She is going to have a party on her birthday. (Her birthday being a specific day in the year)
- Rent must be paid on the 1st of every month. (rent is due on the 1st day of every month)
- I go to the beach on the weekend. (the weekend being two specific days; Saturday & Sunday)
AT: Looking again at the diagram we see that AT is represented by a star which sits at the intersection of two lines. In reference to time, we can conclude that we use AT when we speak about reaching a certain point in time such as:
- time on a clock
- times of the day (*we only use at to refer to ‘night’. Morning, afternoon and evening use in)
- time of year (holidays / festivals)
- I start school at 8 o’clock every day.
- It isn’t safe to go out at night alone.
- My family comes to visit at Christmas time. (the time of year we call Christmas, not just Christmas Day)
- We are going to meet at lunchtime.
- Sorry, he’s busy at the moment. (at this specific time)
- They arrived at the party at the same time. (at that same specific time).
Do we always have to use a preposition when talking about time?
No. There are some adverbs that we can use to refer to time that do not need a preposition.
- next, last
- tomorrow, yesterday
- We are planning a trip to Morocco next summer.
- I was studying for my exam last night.
- We need to go shopping for food tomorrow.
- I saw your friend on the bus yesterday.
Are there more prepositions of time?
Yes, of course! This is English – we have lots and lots of prepositions and adverbs we can use! Be sure to keep your eyes open for the next blog where we will introduce you to more ways to talk about time.