English – TIME PREPOSITIONS


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There are two types of time prepositions in English. First, we will take a look at the basic time prepositions atin, and on. Secondly, we will cover the functional time prepositions afterbeforebyduringforfrominto and until/till.

Basic Time Prepositions

The prepositions atin and on are associated with specific time categories, which must be memorized. For example, we say “at 5 PM on Sunday in June” because English speakers use at with clock times, on with days, and in with months. Study the categories and the examples below.

PrepositionTime Categories
atclock times, exact times of day, night, holiday periods
inmonths, years, morning/afternoon/evening, seasons, centuries, eras
ondays, dates, holidays, weekends, days+morning/afternoon/evening

To help you understand the time categories listed above, here are a few real-life examples of at, in and on to get you started.

AtInOn
at 3:45 PMin Juneon Tuesday
at noonin Auguston September 8, 1969
at midnightin the winteron Christmas Eve
at sunrisein the summeron the day we met
at sunsetin the morningon the weekend
at dawnin the afternoonon weekends
at Christmastimein the Renaissanceon my birthday
at the close of dayin the ’70son Thanksgiving
at nightin the 14th centuryon Friday mornings
at 6 o’clockin 1922on the first day of the month

On Christmas vs. At Christmas

Both on and at are used with holidays, but the meaning is different. On is used with specific days and at is used with holiday periods. For this reason, on Christmas means on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) whereas at Christmas means during the Christmas season (late December). There is a similar distinction with longer holidays, including Easter, Hanukkah, the New Year, Thanksgiving weekend, Chinese New Year etc.

Examples:

  • On Christmas, we always eat dinner at my grandparents’ house. Christmas day
  • I love all the decorations at Christmas. Christmastime

No Prepositions with Tomorrow, Yesterday, Next, and Last

Do not use on with the words tomorrow or yesterday. Similarly, do not use atin or on with any of the expressions listed above when they follow the words next or last.

Examples:

  • I went to the movies on yesterdayNot correct
  • I went to the movies yesterdayCorrect
  • I went to the movies on last TuesdayNot correct
  • I went to the movies last TuesdayCorrect
  • I graduated from college in last AugustNot correct
  • I graduated from college last AugustCorrect

Functional Time Prepositions

The following time prepositions have a more functional usage and show how two or more events relate to each other in time. For example, Lisa jogs before dinner means Lisa jogs first and eats dinner second. These time prepositions can be hard to translate and are best learned through conversation.

PrepositionUseExamples
beforeearlier thanBefore work, Tony eats breakfast.
from… tostart time… end timeTony works from 9 AM to 5 PM.
from… until/tillstart time… end timeTony works from 9 AM until 5 PM.
foramount of timeTony works for eight hours.
duringwithin a timeDuring the day, Tony eats a small snack and lunch.
bybefore a point of timeBy 5 PM, Tony is quite hungry again.
afterlater thanAfter work, Tony goes home and eats dinner.
inwithin an amount of timeTony eats four times in twelve hours.

To vs. Until vs. Till

Both to and until express similar ideas, but there is a difference in usage between the two words. To is a preposition, and it must be followed by a noun, most frequently a clock time such as 3:45 PM.

Until is both a preposition and an adverb, which means it is more flexible. Until can be followed by any time noun or even an entire clause. If you are confused, you can use until and that will always be right.

Till is a short, less formal version of untilTill (also written as ‘til) is more common in spoken English, songs, and poetry.

Examples:

  • Jane stayed from 3:30 to 5:30.
  • Jane stayed from 3:30 until 5:30.
  • Jane stayed until the end.
  • Jane stayed till the end.
  • Jane stayed until every person in the room had left.
  • Jane stayed till every person in the room had left.

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