Prepositions of Direction and Location

A couple weeks ago I talked about some very common prepositions (in, at and on) and how to use them to talk about time.

This week I’d like to talk about how to use those same prepositions to talk about locations and directions.

So let’s get to it!


In means inside or within certain boundaries.

So any time there are clear boundaries, like walls or the sides of a box, you can use the preposition “in”.

For example:

“I think it‘s in the basket.”

“I put it in the basket.”

“They have a really nice couch in their living room.”

“Don’t throw that in the garbage can, throw it in the recycle bin.”

“I work in Osaka.”

A quick note about the differences between location and direction.

  • Location tells us “where?”
  • Direction tells us “which way?”

You may have noticed that we use verbs like “be” and “have” to talk about locations, put actions like “throw” or “put” with in as well to talk about directions.


On means contacting or touching, usually in a higher position (but not always!)

For example:

“He knocked on the door.”

“The vase is on the table.”

“Don’t drive on the sidewalk.”

“There’s gum on the table!”

“He just jumped on the table and started dancing.”

“That’s a nice picture on the wall.”

As you can see, it can also be used to talk about location or direction.

However, on is also used in one very important way: when talking about larger objects or areas (like houses or streets), on can mean approximately in or in the same general area.

For example:

“His apartment is on the south side of Umeda.”

“That house is on the highway, so it’s probably really noisy.”

“They‘re constructing a new building on my street.”

Note that in all of those examples, none of them are actually contacting the places, but just very near or approximately inside them.


Finally, we have at.  At is probably the most confusing one, but it’s actually fairly simple.

At usually means in or near.

Here’s where it’s confusing: if we already have the prepositions “in” or “near”, why do we use “at”?  Why not just “in” or “near”?

Sometimes we use it because it doesn’t really matter whether the thing or person is precisely inside or not.  For example:

“I’ll be at the shopping mall for the next 30 minutes.”

“I think they have some drinks at the convenience store.”

Does it matter if I will be inside the shopping mall or near the shopping mall for the next 30 minutes?  Not really.  Does it matter if the drinks are inside the convenience store or outside?  Not really, they should be easy to find either way.

Another reason we often use “at” instead of “in” or “near” is because we don’t know whether the person or object is inside or outside.  For example:

“Ben?  I think he‘s at the shopping mall.”

“I think they have parking spaces at that store.”

In both cases, the speaker is not sure whether the person or thing is inside or outside of the place.  Is Ben inside or near the shopping mall?  The speaker isn’t sure.  Are the parking spaces inside the store or near it?  Probably near it, but the speaker isn’t sure.

You may have also noticed that all of the examples had to do with location, not direction.  When we use at with directions, it means something different.  It means in the general direction of.  For example:

“Take a look at your computer screen.”

“He threw the rocks at the window.”

“Stop yelling at me.”

You also may have noticed that “at” often has a negative connotation when we use it with actions!  If you want to express the same idea (in the direction of) without the negative connotation, use “to” instead.

I hope that helped!  Keep practicing these very important prepositions and let me know if you have any questions!  See you next week.


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