Why do we say at six o'clock, on Monday, in 1996? Is there a deeper logic here than simply "that's how the English language works?"

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    Most uses of preposition in expressions of time are metaphors. These simply use different metaphors. A time is conceived as a POINT, a day as a SURFACE, a longer time as aCONTAINER
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 16:28
  • In a word, "No". @ColinFine is quite right; but there's no reason why we employ those particular metaphors with those terms; the apparent progression from 1 to 3 dimensions is subverted by our saying "at night" and "in the afternoon/morning". Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 16:28
  • @StoneyB Ah, but it's in the night not at the night, though. Just to be nitpicky ;) Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 15:01

1 Answer 1


Actually, the metaphors are all coherent, so there is a logic to it.

As Colin explained in his comment, and as discussed in this post,

  • Months and larger measures are Containers -- 3-Dimensional: in 1949, in June, in this century
  • Days are Surfaces -- 2-Dimensional: on Thursday, on Thanksgiving, on this occasion
  • Smaller measures are Points on a 1-Dimensional line: at noon, at 12:03:45, at the moment

The smaller the unit of time, the fewer dimensions. Just a map location - at Exit 37, at 2:33 pm.
The bigger it is, the more experience it represents. A day is a page of events -- it's flat, whence on. Anything bigger than one day has to be able to stack the day pages, so it's a volume, whence in.

Metaphors always have an internal logic.

  • 1
    This is so dope
    – pseudosudo
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 21:56

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