English prepositions with regards to vehicle type
February 1, 2018 12:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm not sure what to Google for this. Why do you "get in a car" but "get on a boat"?

Is there a specific rule for this or is it picked up through usage and good guessing? Mulling it over I've come to the conclusions below but English is a strange, strange language, even as a native speaker.

get in (enter) = vehicle is a smaller size, most likely personal use
get on (board) = vehicle is larger, public transportation

get in a: carriage, car, canoe, boat (small boat)
get on a: train, plane, boat/ship, bus

get in a spaceship = personal transport
get on a spaceship = space station, the Enterprise

tl;dr I think size is related, but if there's a rule I want to hear it.
posted by lesser weasel to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This article says it is related to whether you can stand in the vehicle while it is moving. If so, you say "on," and if not, "in." Thus, you are on a train or plane, but In a taxi or rowboat.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:18 AM on February 1, 2018 [16 favorites]

What about getting on an amusement ride, which could be sitting or pinned against a rotating wall or dangling from a harness. Or getting on a bobsled, or a bicycle or a motorcycle. At work, you might be told to "get in line" which is metaphorically, standing. But also, to "get onboard," like a ship where you might indeed be standing on a deck. So this isn't just about transport, but usages of "get in" versus "get on" in a lot of contexts?
posted by CollectiveMind at 1:00 AM on February 1, 2018

Hmmm... "on" works for a bicycle, motorcycle, jetski, canal barge, or horse. And "in" seems to work with a locomotive or a submarine or space capsule or TARDIS or rickshaw, but I think I'd also say "onboard a submarine." Do both "on a bus" and "in a bus" work too?

But neither of them seems to work for a jetpack.
posted by XMLicious at 1:03 AM on February 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don’t think there’s any rule, it’s just evolved on a case by case basis. So, like, most cars are fully enclosed, so you ride in them, while most boats you are likely to encounter are open, so you get on them. A large boat may have enclosed spaces, but it’s still a boat, so custom dictates that one is on it, even while in a cabin.
posted by rodlymight at 2:56 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

So, like, most cars are fully enclosed, so you ride in them, while most boats you are likely to encounter are open

I liked this explanation but it falls fairly quickly - eg on a bus, on a train, on a spaceship...

I think the get on (board) logic is more convincing. It seems you could replace "get on" with "board" in pretty much all of these cases - eg I got on the bus = I boarded the bus. Board as a verb doesn't work with car / taxi etc (all of the "get in" modes)
posted by jontyjago at 3:32 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: English doesn't really have 'rules' as such for things like this. It's about how it feels, and how it relates to common usage for similar vehicles.

I'd agree that it feels like a size thing, but on reflection there seem to be multiple things in play:
*Relative size
*Relative position
*Do you wear it?

Relative size:
In most cases, we get 'in' (or 'into') something that's large enough for no more than a few people. So we get into a car or truck, but get o nto a bus or train. For a fairground ride, we get 'on' to the ride (because the ride is big and sits many people), but we get 'into' the individual car on the ride.

We get 'into' a canoe, but 'on' to a raft or surfboard of similar size. We get 'into' a horse-drawn carriage, but 'on' to a flat cart of similar size. In both cases there's an element of enclosure in the first instance, whether it's total enclosure or more of a depression in which you can sit. A convertible car with an open top is still an 'in', but a car with no sides at all? That's an 'on'.

Relative position:
In cases where the person or persons is clearly above the vehicle (such as a skateboard, a bike, a pogo stick, a horse, we get 'on' to the said vehicle. This might be a factor in why we say 'on' for a large boat or ship, but I think it's mostly a relative size thing (see above).

Do you wear it?
With a jetpack or roller skates, you clearly 'put them on', as they're worn like shoes or a backpack. So while you can consider them vehicles of a sort, they're more usually thought of as an item of clothing or a worn accessory than just happens to be a mode of transport.

So there's a logic, but it's fuzzy around the edges. We might enter a passenger ferry through a tunnel and remain inside it throughout the journey, but we still get 'on' to it, because a ferry is a boat, and we associate 'on' with the combination of 'boat' and 'large'. The same goes for a submarine, which we're clearly 'in'; we nevertheless say 'on'.

If we imagine some novel futuristic vehicle, say a tall mechanical spider that a single person can ride, we might decide to use 'on', since we would get 'on' to a horse or other walking creature. If the pilot's seat were enclosed in some sort of bubble, then we might decide to use 'in', since we'd get 'in' to a car or carriage.

I've spent way too long on this
posted by pipeski at 3:38 AM on February 1, 2018 [19 favorites]

Obligatory link to George Carlin (about 3 minutes in: “Fuck you, I’m getting in the plane!”)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:51 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of the thread about how many holes a straw has.

It's "usage and good guessing." English prepositions aren't really consistent, and it gets even weirder when they're idiomatic.

"In" is probably the weirdest because it's also used for time and abstraction. "The ways in which" is my personal fave. Most of the time this is interchangeable with "how," but what's "in" doing, exactly?

Consider also the more British "in future" - American English adds a "the" to future for some reason.

Prepositions even expect specific modifiers depending on the referent: "Get in bed." "Fall in love."

If it makes you feel any better they aren't particularly consistent in Spanish either, and languages with explicit rules about them might have a completely different mechanism for locational modifiers.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:10 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

An element of 'enclosure'? You get in a kayak but there are a type of kayak that is open that "get on" would work.
posted by sammyo at 5:26 AM on February 1, 2018

English is a strange, strange language

It totally is, but having studied French and Russian I can tell you this is one area in which they are strange too - leading me to suspect it is generally the case that prepositions are just weird bits of language, especially for some reason with respect to modes of transport.
posted by solotoro at 6:13 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ever get on a small boat that bobs and wobbles as you do so? The kinetic feeling is very much getting on the thing and wondering if you will end up in the water, and lowering your centre of gravity as fast as you can so that you are lower than the gunwales so that you won't wind up bobbing around beside the boat covered in duckweed.

Of course once you sit down or squat you are in the boat - you are between the sides of the boat, rather than rather higher but in a small boat like a dory there are no below decks to go into, and unless you lie down you are still going to be taller than the highest point of the vessel (If it is a sail boat you may be a lot lower than the top of the mast, but rowing and paddling and poling is the normal method of propelling a boat around, sails that could do more than go in the direction of the wind, if there is one, are a relatively brief part of the history of boats.)

What did Washington say before crossing the Delaware? "Get in the boats!" Where I come from both in and on are used in connection with boats. I suspect that the choice of which word to use comes from the experience of people around boats. And in more primitive situations you were either getting on a bobbing small boat that could capsize, or you rowed out to a great big boat that was moored off-shore, lacking a quay big enough to tie up to, and spent hours raising cargo from the tender up to the ship's deck. The word up would come into play in your perceptions because you would be looking up the side of the ship, and watching things be raised up above you, and then they would disappear over the side onto the deck. You'd be thinking of getting yourself on that deck, rather than yourself getting stowed in the hold.

Also consider that many people are a little phobic about going below decks - they are more likely to get seasick and if the boat sinks being below decks means you are going down with the ship - notice that boats also go down, another reason why people would think of up as a much better word for where you want to be. Also remember boats go up and down with every tide, something that is very visible when they are tied up at an ocean quay. You might have to do some tricky balancing and timing to get on the vessel and not fall of the gangplank. You most certainly want to be on the gangplank. Embarking requires you to first get on the ship, and then adjust your position - throughout history you certainly wouldn't be going into the side of the ship to enter the cabins, those are meant to be water proof, let alone person proof. So you get on the deck and then, if you want to, go in the cabins.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:07 AM on February 1, 2018

I think the issue might be shot through with fuzziness, rather than just at the edges.

This might be a factor in why we say 'on' for a large boat or ship

We live well in the houses—well enough. But we are ruled utterly by fear. There was a time we sailed in ships between the stars, and now we dare not go a hundred miles from home. We keep a little knowledge, and do nothing with it. ⁓Ursula K. Le Guin, City of Illusions (1967)

Above the mists on Hatheg-Kla, earth's gods sometimes dance reminiscently; for they know they are safe, and love to come from unknown Kadath in ships of clouds and play in the olden way, as they did when earth was new and men not given to the climbing of inaccessible places. ⁓H. P. Lovecraft, The Other Gods (1921)

The Vikings first reached North America from Scandinavia about 1,000 years ago in wooden ships with square sails. ⁓Rebecca L. Busby, Wind Power: The Industry Grows Up (2006)
Also it appears to always be "in" or "into" regarding Noah's Ark, all the way back to the KJV. And Jonah was "in the belly" of the "great fish", though that probably doesn't really count since our problems these days are with travel congestion rather than travel ingestion.

I was also noticing that if it's a smaller plane like a fighter jet it's "in". Also applies to a hot air balloon. But I think I could probably go either way with a blimp or dirigible.
posted by XMLicious at 7:09 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

XMLicious, do you think your examples are a case of active vs passive voice influencing usage?
posted by kate4914 at 7:53 AM on February 1, 2018

It totally is, but having studied French and Russian I can tell you this is one area in which they are strange too - leading me to suspect it is generally the case that prepositions are just weird bits of language, especially for some reason with respect to modes of transport.

Or rather, in general. See this article here, for example. TL;DR there's no direct, logical one-to-one mapping of adpositions (cover term for prepositions and postpositions) to physical space, because we see such variation cross-linguistically in how all this works. There tends to be a sort of fuzzy core of meaning, but how the details play out differ from language to language.
posted by damayanti at 7:59 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

do you think your examples are a case of active vs passive voice influencing usage

Every single example given uses the active voice ("sailed," "come," "reach").

For languages that use prepositions, they tend to be intuitive rather than strictly logical. Even in inflected languages, a preposition can govern more than one case in a way that makes only rough sense.
posted by praemunire at 8:14 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, and to complicate matters, this is ever-changing and I think very fluid across time and space. I was watching some archival footage recently of Edwardian London that described sitting 'in' the bus on the way to work. Nowadays I think most people (here in the UK at least) would say they were 'on the bus'. Doubtless regional dialects all do things differently too. I cannot think of a hard and fast explanation for why it's the way it is, or how to navigate it.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 8:21 AM on February 1, 2018

Where am I standing if "I'm standing on the bus"?
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:27 AM on February 1, 2018

You’re on top of the bus.
posted by kerf at 8:54 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Why does British English say "He lives in my street." but American English says "He lives on my street."?
posted by humboldt32 at 9:02 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

With Car and Boat, I think it's about the level of enveloping.

Think about the activity of putting your body IN/ON Chairs, Couches, and Benches. IN or ON a chair is ok but it seems like it matters whether it has arms or not. IN a bench or couch sounds weird even though it has arms, because the feeling is just not there that you are contained.

Stuff goes IN a dumptruck but ON a flatbed. ON a plate, IN a bowl.
posted by achrise at 9:22 AM on February 1, 2018

I would say if you're standing on the bus, you're standing up inside the bus, probably holding onto a rail or strap. And I don't know why British English says he lives in the street, but the American version makes a lot more logical sense to me—you live on the street like you live on the water. You're on the side of it, with your lawn abutting the sidewalk or curb, or with your house overlooking it. You don't live in the water (usually, unless you're a lagoon creature). That's why I've always argued it makes more logical sense to say you're "on the Delmar Loop" or "down on the Loop" (which is just a street and trolley route here in St. Louis—it's named that because it was once where trolleys would loop around), rather than "in the Loop," even though I get that the latter phrase is kind of catchy and has that double meaning.
posted by limeonaire at 9:26 AM on February 1, 2018

Best answer: This history of prepositions nails it, I think. Tl;dr: Old English used word endings to convey them, but in the transition to Middle English that method was dropped and these maddening little words developed in their place. Usage varies by region (some good examples in there).
posted by mrcrow at 9:43 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

But neither of them seems to work for a jetpack.

Jetpack gets on you. [/Soviet Russia]
posted by clawsoon at 11:09 AM on February 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Putting aside the obvious cases where you’re actually atop the thing without an enclosure (jet ski, horse, motorcycle, etc), the in/on divide here is whether you’re walking to a seat once you’ve entered the transport or not.

In the rowboat / on the ship
In the helicopter/ on the plane
In the cab / on the bus
posted by charlemangy at 11:32 AM on February 1, 2018

Many preposition choices are basically arbitrary, as demonstrated by the variations among English speakers

Native New Yorkers wait on line, instead of in line like the rest of us

The British are different to Americans, but Americans are different from the British

You call a Londoner on a telephone number, but call a New Yorker at a phone number

Some British people have never been in America, some Americans have never been to England

Some Americans make mistakes by accident, some make them on accident

Though nobody sleeps between mattress and frame, everybody gets in bed instead of on bed

etc, etc
posted by mrmurbles at 11:56 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

the in/on divide here is whether you’re walking to a seat once you’ve entered the transport or not

But that doesn't work with ♪♫We all live in a Yellow Submarine...
posted by XMLicious at 4:55 PM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This isn't arbitrary — like many other language structures, there are many rule-governed patterns at play here. Underlying all of these prepositions are conceptual metaphors. As many have already pointed out, prepositions can convey information about size, position, enclosure. But also things like safety, stability, movement, groundedness, time, space, etc.

So if we contrast metaphorical concepts like 'safety is being inside something' with 'stability is being on top of something' then we end up with two plausible options, 'in' and 'on'. When referring to a moving vehicle such as a car we tend to prioritise safety over stability, whereas with a boat it can be the other way around. This is more obvious at the extremes, e.g. a bus or a plane versus a raft. However, other factors can come into play too, such as position or comfort. A bed is very raft-like, but has no movement — the 'on' in 'get on the bed' puts priority on the position whereas 'get in the bed' prioritizes comfort. Note that there is some conceptual similarity between stability and position and also between safety (security) and comfort.

The idea of 'in'-ness can mean a whole lot of things … it can be good, safe, warm, complete, small, fitting, functional, belonging, constricting, trapped, bad etc. Conversely 'on'-ness can be good, open, stable, vast, conquering, covering, complete, smothering, bad, etc.

Because of all this possibility, you can get variation. Add in that cultures or communities will evolve and change over time and prioritise one "rule" higher than another as the associations shift around.

Prepositions are really, really fun. But it's not random — there are logical and perfectly cromulent reasons why we say things like 'roll up a rug' and 'roll out the rug' (as opposed to up/down or in/out?)*

*It's because we prioritise the 'up is good' metaphor in this case and when a rug is rolled it is neat, organised, compact and *tall* — it has 'up'-ness in the good sense. When a rug is 'out', it is open, vast and on display, which is also good! English is pretty optimistic about rugs I guess — all states are good states.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:04 PM on February 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

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