On? In? At? How to use PREPOSITIONS of TIME

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

On time is always in time

You were able to catch the bus ON time but you don’t know if you will make it to your friend’s birthday IN time for cake. The party started AT 5:00 and your bus arrived AT 6:00.

These sentences are talking about one thing, time, but how many prepositions are being used? Three of them! What’s the difference? When do we use each of them?

We’re going to find out in this lesson!

Let’s break these sentences down into three smaller ones.

You were able to catch the bus on time.
You don’t know if you will make it to your friend’s party in time.
The party started at 5:00.

Each of these sentences is talking about time in three different ways. Let’s start with the easiest one.

Tick tock goes the clock

The third sentence is the simplest way to use a preposition to talk about time. It starts with a subject (The party), followed by a verb (started), then a preposition (at), and ends with a specific hour (5:00). The reason we’re using the preposition AT is because 5:00 is a specific hour of the clock. It doesn’t matter what the time is:

We will meet AT 8:30.
My class starts AT 12:00.
We arrived at the train station but the last train had already left AT 7:15.

Whenever we talk or write about a specific time (8:30, 12:00, 7:15) we always use the preposition AT. Here are some examples of when you can use this:

Telling people what time to meet.

Telling people what time a movie starts.

Telling people what time you will arrive or leave from somewhere.

Telling people what time a store opens.

You can even use the preposition AT when you don’t know the exact time or you’re making a guess about the time something happens. For example:

I think the movie starts AT around 7:00 pm.
He said he would arrive AT roughly 6:30 but he’s not here yet.

The reason we still use the preposition AT here is that a specific time is still mentioned. It’s the helping words, like around and roughly, that make it not specific so the preposition doesn’t need to change.

The next preposition is also easy to understand and use when talking about time.

Talking about a planned or scheduled time

Where is the delay?

The first sentence makes use of the preposition ON. There’s a beginning part with a subject (You were able), followed by a verb (to catch the bus), and ends with a time phrase (on time). What makes this easy to learn is that ON TIME is an expression we use in English to say that we did something at a planned or scheduled time.

In our example, buses usually have a schedule that tells us what time they arrive and leave. If your bus leaves at 5:00 and you are there to catch it at 5:00 then you’re ON TIME. Here are a few more examples:

I was late for my class because my train didn’t arrive ON TIME.
Sarah will be out of the gate soon. Her plane arrived ON TIME.
Our boss wants his meetings to start ON TIME so we shouldn’t be late.

When talking about something that you have planned or something that is scheduled to happen at a certain time, you can use ON TIME as an expression to talk about being early or late. Here are some examples of when you can use it:

Arriving late or early to a meeting.

Leaving late or early for a trip.

Going to the cinema or bar late or early to meet your friends.

Going to your doctor’s or dentist’s appointment late or early.

To make a long story short, the preposition ON with the word TIME are used together to talk about being early or late for something.

Now, let’s move on to the tricky preposition: IN.

Talking about something before an end time

Hurry! Or you'll never make it!

Let’s look at the second sentence one more time:

You don’t know if you will make it IN time for cake.

This sentence has a beginning with a subject (You don’t know if you), followed by a verb (will make it), and ends with a time phrase and some details (IN time for cake) This time phrase and its details are an end time. If we miss the end time, then we won’t have cake.

Just like with ON TIME, the preposition IN here has to be followed by TIME to make another English expression; IN TIME. The meaning of the expression is some happened before a time ends. Here are some examples:

We won’t arrive at the bus stop IN TIME to catch the last bus.
John and Mary went to the cinema IN TIME for the 5:00 movie.
We need to hurry! We won’t make it IN TIME.

In the first 2 examples, IN TIME is followed by some details that describe what the subject wants to do. In the third one, the details are said but they are implied. In all three cases, there is an end point in time.

The focus of the expression IN TIME is that something needs to be done before a described point in time ends. The best way to think about it is like a ticking clock that will ring if you don’t do something by a certain time. So, IN TIME is about consequences when a time limit is missed.

Here are examples of when you can use this:

Talking about missing your date with your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner.

Talking about missing your morning meeting with your company.

Describing what will happen if you don’t finish a project or your homework.

Waiting. Always waiting.

To recap, the prepositions ON, IN, and AT can all be used to talk about time. AT can be followed by a specific time of the clock or a described time. ON and IN can be connected with time to form expressions to talk about scheduled time and missing an end time, respectively.

There you have it! I hope this has been useful. If so, share this article with someone who wants to learn English, follow us on Instagram and try making some examples in the comments below!

See you in the next lesson!

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