The Guardian’s letters column has recently seen a discussion about the standard preposition collocation of going up to and down from London, counter-intuitively to the common idea of up implying northwards on a map. I am not sure if it is still the case but I certainly remember the up train and the down train being the common colloquial names respectively for the trains to and from London. When P G Wodehouse wrote
I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.
no reader would have doubted that the train was travelling away from the capital towards the provinces.
But this letter prompted me to think about different prepositions.
Wherever your destination, go there by East Coast or Cross Country train and, bizarrely, you’ll arrive into it.
Michael Ayton, Durham
Firstly, this use of into is something that has surprised and puzzled me on British trains. It goes counter to what I explain to my students: that arrive implies position, when you arrive you acre there and thus it takes prepositions of position not of movement. This is particularly important with Spanish students who collocate the preposition a with llegar. As I say in A Guide to English Language Usage and with almost identical wording in Pearls of the English Language:
This is a verb of position not of movement. It can only be used with prepositions which describe position; it cannot be used with to: He arrived in the pub before me but He came to the pub by bus and We arrived at the airport an hour and a half before take-off but We travelled to the airport by taxi. The most commonly used prepositions are in and at, though other prepositions of place, e.g. on, over, next to, are possible: The plane arrived over Paris at 12.30.
The prepositions in, on and at can cause great difficulty because other languages do not use them in the same way. A Spanish-speaker reads something en un libro or en la página 38 where as an English-speaker reads the same thing with different prepositions as being in the book but on page 34. The difference is easily explained – though in my experience few students have ever met the simple explanation that in means inside and on means on the surface of. Once this is grasped, everything falls into place. The information is inside the book but the print is on the surface of the page; a coin is on my hand if I hold it open and flat but in my hand if I close my fist around it; a table is in the corner of the room because it is surrounded by the walls but you stand on the corner of the street because you are on the ground; you sit in an armchair but on a dining chair. The surface does not have to be horizontal: we say on the floor, on the wall and on the ceiling but German has auf dem Boden, an der Wand and an der Decke because auf is only for on that is on the top of a horizontal surface.
(Click to enlarge image left of in, on & at from Pearls of the English Language.)
Then there is at, a preposition that no other language seems to require. It isn’t in and it isn’t on so what is it? It is for a relation in space that exists between two things but that is not in or on. If you are waiting for a bus, you stand at the bus stop. The stop is a pole so you can’t be in (inside) it and you can’t be on (on top of) it. You stand at (within a few metres of) it but someone waiting for a taxi could be in the same place but standing near the bus stop because there is no relationship between the purpose and the place.
And of course, when you are at the bus stop you could be sitting on a seat in the shelter.
Bus shelter in Zálezlice, Czech Republic, Wikimedia Commons