Which of the following location statements is correct: the old Police Station at Hollywood Road, the old Police Station on Hollywood Road, or the old Police Station in Hollywood Road? If you're uncertain -- or haven't got a clue -- click on 'Read More' for today's blog post!
Recently I was editing a document that had been previously edited by someone else, and came across the following revision referring to
The first writer had written 'on Hollywood Road', but the second writer had changed it to 'at Hollywood Road'. What's more, another editor suggested that perhaps the expression should be 'in Hollywood Road'! This kind of uncertainty about how to refer to locations is quite widespread in Hong Kong writing, and stems from a deeper uncertainty about the difference in meaning between prepositions.
There are some basic rules of thumb that can help you decide correctly which preposition to use when you want to describe the spatial location of something. The first thing to remember is that we can think about space in three different ways:
1) somewhere that has no dimensions … we think of it as a point. When we think about space in this way, at is commonly used:
3) somewhere that has an area with internal space (i.e. with volume), and so has two or three dimensions. When we think about space in this way, in is commonly used:
How then should we write the phrase about the old Police Station? Streets and roads are normally treated as one-dimensional lines, and so typically in standard English you will find them used with the preposition on:
Do be aware, however, that these rules are not hard and fast because it is possible to think about space in different ways in different contexts. Take a look at this sentence, for example:
Why 'in Hollywood Road' here? Because in this sentence, Hollywood Road is being treated as a space with internal volume, something you can get 'in'. We understand from this sentence that the woman in question is actually lying in the middle of the road, which means we are thinking of the road as a space with an edge and an interior, an outside and an inside. Hence the use of in a rather than on.
In summary, the preposition you use to indicate a fixed location in space (at, on or in) depends on how you conceptualise the space you are talking about: as a point (at), a line or flat surface (on), or a space with internal volume (in). Sometimes you can use different prepositions with the same noun, simply because you are conceptualising the space differently.
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.