The difference between the prepositional phrases ‘in and on’ is their spatial meanings. Spatial meaning is acquired as a method that a language user relates themself in physical space. The conceptualization of spatial meanings is the building blocks on the mental constructions in the physical world. In other words, we use our concepts to determine the correct form of prepositional phrase.
In: ‘In’ covers a variety of real-world relationships. It takes the real-world object as a container, landmark, that it defines the boundaries of the real-world object. Under this line of thinking, ‘in’ shows that something (subject) is being put inside a container (object). For instance, “Kevin is in the treehouse.” Kevin is the subject that is being contained in the large space provided by the treehouse, object.
On: ‘On’ is used in the condition where both the subject and object are concrete to the language user. Meanwhile, ‘on’ also illustrates the meaning that is object is a surface that allows something to be put on, such as, “The football players on the pitch.”. Whereas the pitch is a surface for the football players to play on. The subject would not be limited to physical, but it should be visible to the users. For example, “The writings on the wall”. Writing is a visible subject that the language user could use to convey that it is attached to the wall.
One of the most confusing ideas is transportation. While we were learning English in primary school, teachers always told us to memorize the prepositional rules of “in and on” regarding transportation, but we were never given the answer. Yet, we have discovered that the most integral factor is whether the condition is habitual or not. Transportation, as in a habitual condition, we would use “on” to describe the occurring scenario. For instance, “Michael will be on the next train.” In this example, the train is a habitual occurrence, whereas it has a fixed schedule in arrival and departure. Therefore, we have the exact and concrete concept of the arrival time. In this case, the train is the surface where Michael is located. Which means that “on” is the appropriate preposition.
Yet, if we want to convey the meaning that the train is a stative location and Michael is currently sitting inside it, we could use “in”. “Michael is in the train”. This shows that the train is stative, and it is a container that contains Michael as an entity inside the boundaries of the train carriage.
We have discovered that there is a reason for specific prepositional usage. Rather than memorizing the rules that we have been told at a young age, understanding the rules and methodology behind could help us become a more proficient language user.
Little did we know that prepositional phrases are taken regarding our spatial understanding. Spatial understanding is something that we choose with instinct, whereas some L2 learners would use their preferred prepositional phrase from their own “it sounds better” thought. Yet, this is not the appropriate way to really facilitate our learning, especially in second language acquisition.
To improve our language proficiency, we discovered that grammatical rules that we were told to avoid at a young age are not wrong. It is more of a matter of fact that the rules could not be applied in the specific context of speech. Just like “Michael is in the train”, it seems that the sentence is ungrammatical, but we should take the context into consideration. In a certain type of context, stative train and Michael is sitting inside, it would be grammatical.