Cast away

Do you live 'on' or 'in' an island?

Prepositions are funny things. Most of them are short words, but they can alter the meaning of a phrase or sentence, or be redundant (as “of them” is earlier in this sentence). They can also stir up strong feelings, as in the “argument” of whether they’re “proper” to end a sentence with.

Grammatically, prepositions indicate the relationship of two parts of a sentence—a relationship of time, location, position, or direction, for example. English has more than 100 prepositions, including ones formed by two or more words. We’ll deal in the next couple of weeks only with some of the ones most likely to cause confusion or to be used redundantly.

For example, should you use “on” or “in” when describing a relationship with an island? Both “in” and “on” indicate a physical relationship, but “in” implies immersion, while “on” seems to be just on the surface (think “upon”). And that’s one way of deciding which to use: “on” for a geographic relationship, “in” for a more diffuse or bureaucratic one. “Long Island” is only a geographic location—there is no hamlet, city, town, or county named “Long Island”—so anyone visiting Nassau or Suffolk counties, Brooklyn, or Queens is “on” Long Island. Someone visiting one of the Quad Cities, though, is “in” Rock Island, IL, because there is no longer a physical Rock Island. (It’s now called Arsenal Island, and that is “in” Rock Island.)

It’s not always that easy, of course. Someone visiting Staten Island is both “on” the geographic island and “in” the New York City borough of Staten Island, so whether to use “on” or “in” is mostly a question of emphasis. Someone visiting might say she would be “on” Staten Island for the weekend, emphasizing the trip to the physical place; residents often say they live “in” Staten Island, emphasizing the municipal relationship, the way someone would say he lives “in” Brooklyn.

For a chain of islands, or several islands joined in a governmental unit, “in” is the usual preposition for the grouping: He’s going to be “in” the Galápagos Islands, though he will be “on” San Cristóbal Island. And if “island” doesn’t appear in the name, “on” rarely shows up: Few people would say they’re going to be “on” Anguilla for the winter. But local idiom rules; if people usually say they live “on” Hilton Head, by saying you live “in” Hilton Head, you risk branding yourself as a snowbird.

Using the “incorrect” preposition in these cases is rarely wrong. If you already knew that, you hit the nail in the head. Which leads us to next week’s topic: Prepositions behaving badly.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.