Live in a housing estate, or live on a housing estate? Mysteries of English prepositions
In Hong Kong, around 2 million people live in … or on ... public housing estates like this one (Kin Ming Estate, Tseung Kwan O). But which is it? Do they live IN estates or ON estates? What is the difference?
A client recently asked me which of these two sentences was correct English:
1) Around 2 million people live in public housing estates in Hong Kong.
2) Around 2 million people live on public housing estates in Hong Kong.
Well, what do you think? Do people live in housing estates, or on them? Take a look at this dictionary entry for 'housing estate' from the Cambridge Online Dictionary at http://dictionary.cambridge.org:
The single example given here seems to suggest that both on and in are acceptable --- though notice that the dictionary gives on priority over in. So what exactly does this mean? Are the two prepositions interchangeable?
Before we answer this question, let's take a look at a related question I had from another client a little while ago. The client asked which of these two sentences was correct English:
3) Don't forget to include my name in the list.
4) Don't forget to include my name on the list.
Here again, the query is about the prepositions in and on, and once again the two sentences seem to mean pretty much the same thing. Why is there a choice? How do native English speakers select between in and on in these sorts of cases?
This is not a grammatical issue. It's actually an issue regarding how we think about items like housing estates or lists. In both cases, the choice of the preposition depends on whether we think of these things (housing estates, lists) as being like containers that you can put other things inside, or being like surface areas that you can place other items onto.
Both a housing estate and a list can be conceptualised as kinds of containers that hold items inside them. If this is the way we are thinking about them, then the preposition in is the one to use. Sentence 1 above imagines the housing estates as like bottles into which the tenants are poured. Sentence 3 imagines the list as like a box into which the various items are thrown.
However, if we think of a housing estate or a list as a flat physical surface upon which we can place things (like houses, or written words), then select on. Sentence 2 imagines the housing estates as pieces of land on which tenants have their abode. Sentence 4 imagines the list as a surface on which words are placed.
We can see this clearly by changing the verb we use with a word like 'list'. Take a look at this sentence:
5) Please write 'envelopes' on the list.
This sentence is good English, but we cannot change the preposition to in here and say "Please write "envelopes" in the list". Why not? because the verb write forces us to to think of the word 'list' as a surface on which words are written, so we must use the preposition on.
In summary, there are a number of nouns in English (like 'housing estate' and 'list') that can be thought of in different ways, either as containers or as surfaces. When you use these kinds of nouns, ask yourself in what sense you are using them, and select the preposition accordingly: in for container, on for surface area.
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About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.