spend...on/in doing something

Discussion in 'English Only' started by hehehehe, Jan 17, 2008.

  1. hehehehe

    hehehehe Senior Member

    China, Chinese
    hi everyone,
    I was taught in high school that I should use "spend" with "in doing sth". Almost every teacher agrees this usage.
    I spend a lot of time in cooking everyday.
    But I can only find "spend...on sth/(on) doing sth" in my dictionary.
    Somebody even told me that:
    spend money on doing sth
    But: spend strength or time in doing sth
    I kind of doubt it. Is that true? Can "spend" be used with "in doing sth"?

  2. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    If it is in your dictionary you can safely accept that we use "on".

    I don't think I use "in" in this context, but perhaps it is seen as the norm amongst Chines English Speakers, in which case you can use it to fit in with what you have all been taught!

    It might be that you are muddled and it is different depending on what comes next.. so you can spend time IN a building but on an activity.
  3. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member


    Neve have I heard spend in! For all I know you can say:

    spend .... on sth or spend ....doing sth

    However, I'm not a native, so I may be wrong:)
  4. hehehehe

    hehehehe Senior Member

    China, Chinese
    Thanks. I've never seen "spend...in...." in English books, either (except text books in Chinese). I know it might be wrong, but still I have to answer "in" when taking exams. It bugs me a lot. So I want to ensure the fact.
  5. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Either in or on can be used, depending on context. In some cases, one can also eliminate the preposition altogether. For example, it sounds entirely natural to say:

    I spent the morning waiting for Henry to arrive.

    Please note that "sth", while apparently a common abbreviation found in translating dictionaries, is not a common abbreviation used by native speakers. Many native speakers, seing such abbreviations as "sth" or "sb" in a sentence, will have no idea what they are supposed to mean. If you wish to be understood by native speakers, you really do need to spell out the word "something".
  6. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member


    If both are acceptable, depending on context, why only in is provided by most dictionaries? (I am not talking about sentences like I spent all my money in Paris last week.)

    When it comes to "sth", I came across this abbreviation in coursebooks written by native speakers for language learners:)
  7. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    {mod. note: please avoid the use of "sth" here.}

    If you spent all your money on Paris, it would mean that you either bought the city of Paris or Paris (Hilton?) was your date. :)
    If you spent all your money in Paris, it would mean that you were in Paris when you spent all your money.

    If you spent all your money on a new car, it means that you bought a new car and it took all your money to do it.
    If you spent all your money ina new car, it means that you were in the car when you spent your money.

    One way to look at it would be "I spent my money on (the purchase of) a new car."

    I'm not sure how to re-word "I spent all my money on Linda." It means that you spent all your money on purchases for that person.
  8. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    That's right. However, when you look at the exmaples given by the author of the thread, you'll see that he is asking about something like this:

    I spend a lot of time in cooking everyday.

    As for me the sentence is incorrect.
  9. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    Good point, audiolaik.

    I would say, "I spend a lot of time in food preparation every day." I wouldn't say, "I spend a lot of time in cooking every day". I would drop the "in": "I spend a lot of time cooking every day."

    Here are places I would use "spend time... in...":

    I spend time in contemplation/prayer/meditation each morning.
    I spend time in bettering myself by reading good books.
    I spend time in making sure that I correct my own typo's. :)
    I spend time in strengthening my ties to friends and family.
    I spend time in service to X.

    I can't quite see the pattern yet. I'm not sure why "spend time in cooking" sounds wrong but these sound right. Does someone else see the pattern?
  10. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Your example has flummoxed me!

    I spend a lot of time in food preparation every day.

    Why would you use in? What would it mean? Would it be a big mistake if I used on?
  11. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I don't think it would be a mistake to use "on" there, no. To me it means that I make a lot of lunches, cut a lot of vegetables, and other activities. It's all to do with preparing meals, but not necessarily cooking and not exclusively cooking. Making a salad is food preparation, for example, but not cooking.

    Google is not a totally reliable indicator, but "time in food preparation" does turn up six times as many results as "time on food preparation." Obviously, they're both used.
  12. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Anyway, why can't I find any dictionary that suggests such a possibility????

    When my mean students find it out, I will be done for....hihihi
  13. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Interesting thread!

    My initial reaction was that the construction had to be "spend time Xing" or "spend time on X".

    But I'm persuaded by JamesM's posts that "in X" is also possible...

    Hehehehe, do whatever is necessary to convince your examiners;)
  14. hehehehe

    hehehehe Senior Member

    China, Chinese
    Thank you for your help.:)I never notice that "sth" is not a common abbreviation to native speaker. I will avoid the use of it. :eek:

    hi JamesM, your examples really comfused me.:confused: I know what's the difference between "spend money in the car" and "spend money on the car". But the examples
    "I spend time in bettering myself by reading good books."
    "I spend time in making sure that I correct my own typo's....."
    Can I change 'in' in those examples into 'on'? Can you tell me when to use 'on' and when to use 'in'?
    Loob, I will try to convince them. There're a huge amount of people...It's hard to challenge them. They think spend time on something is ok, spend time doing something is ok, too, but spend time on doing something is definitely wrong. :eek:
    audiolaik, though my name is he x 4, I'm a girl.:D
  15. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    As I said a long time ago, if your teachers (and other 2nd language speakers in your community) think a certain construction is OK, then it IS OK!

    That is how language changes, and people in the UK lost "control" over that a long time ago. American, and Australian, and African, and Indian varieties of "English" (to name but a few) have been branching out in their own ways for centuries now, as people in these places talk to each other.

    I think this is a far more interesting thing to teach your students than some (rather artificial ) "rules" about prepositions. Preposition use is one of the most fluid and variable of word classes to pin down; many UK English speakers don't even agree on some of them!
  16. hehehehe

    hehehehe Senior Member

    China, Chinese
    suzi br, you are right. Those rules shouldn't be too strict. Sometimes I'm just a little nit-picky. :)
    In this case, whether "in" or "on" won't change the meaning of the whole sentence. In conversations, I can be understood either way. But when taking exams, I need to choose the exact right answer from several choices. However, as you said, I should choose the answer which my teachers believe is right, at least in those exams they test.
  17. pollofrito

    pollofrito Senior Member

    Mexico City
    Mexico - Español
    Dear JamesM,

    I do not know when you wrote your examples, but I just wanted to tell you that I simply loved them all.

    Thanks, brother.

    El Pollo
  18. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    English / England
    James is always spending his time in creative endeavours.

    As for his question about why "in" sounds OK with "bettering" "strengthening" etc and yet it sounds silly with cooking because cooking is a word with a concrete meaning, and we might visualise you drowning in the batter or deep fat oil?

    I think, having re-read this months later, that the choice of whether to use "in" or "on" is ridiculously hard to classify!
  19. sevengem

    sevengem Senior Member

    But I did see the following usages in Oxord Dictionary. Can it be true?

    spend money on doing sth
    spend strength or time in doing sth
  20. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    sevengem, I'm completely new, but I'll just note that the thread is quite old.

    Either way, if it ends up helping some other browser who comes later on looking for an answer, I can think of a comparison to German (English, after all, is a Germanic language.) "In," "an" and "auf," are more specific to the positioning of the object being referred to in German. So, in English, if you say "I have spent all day in preparation," it means that you were immersed within preparation. However, if you were to say "I have spent all day on the preparations," it means that you've been working on or upon the preparations.

    Bringing back another example from above: "I have spent all day on cooking," means that you've been on top of the cooking ("on top of" being a common saying referring to someone who has been managing something.) So, again, it implies working form the outside. However, to general English, you can't correctly say, "I've spent all day in cooking," but rather, "I've spent all of my day in the house cooking."
  21. Jason.

    Jason. Member

    Costa Rica
    Can I say 'I like to spend my time on far more interesting activities' ?
    Or do I have to use 'in' isntead of 'on' ?
  22. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    "On," would be much better in that case. If you spend time doing something, as a rule of thumb, use "on." It seems to me that typically, you spend time on activities, but spend your time in enclosed spaces. For a location, 'at' would be a good choice.

    "I like to spend my time on homework once I get home from school."
    "I spend most of my time in my house."
    "I spent the time at the park, yesterday."

    These are all prepositional phrases, and a preposition always indicates placement relative to a noun. You spend your time on activities, you spend your time in enclosed spaces, you spend your time at locations, and you can also spend your time on top of things. The word "above" would mean the same as "on," in the case of the last example. I hope this helps.
  23. Jason.

    Jason. Member

    Costa Rica
    That's a really easy explanation, I'm surprised I never thought of it that way.
    It absolutely did help, thak you!
  24. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    No problem. However, I listed 'above' and 'on' as being the same thing in the very last example. After thinking about it a little more, 'above' usually suggests suspension over something, not necessarily on something, which suggests actually having contact with the object. However, they are similar.
  25. sunyaer Senior Member

    Does this sound natural?

    "The government should spend money in healthcare and education."
  26. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    I would say that it should be on instead of in. Saying, "The government should invest money in healthcare and education," however, makes perfect sense and sounds natural. These phrases can be a little tricky, especially with more murky meanings. By murky, I mean to say that it's hard to imagine someone physically putting money on an abstract organisation, but because it is abstract, it has a more abstract prepositional phrase. The best idea is just to learn what prepositions go with what phrases, learn the patterns, and try to apply them appropriately. While English is a language where there are many finite rules for grammar, it also has very little consistency.

    <<Comment deleted.>>
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 10, 2013
  27. sunyaer Senior Member

    Post #14

    Post #18

    Post #20

    The preposition "in" indicates that there is a "container" existing in the meaning, in which the subject is involved in this "container". For abstract words, such as "pray", "bettering", " strengthening" in the examples, "in" is perfectly conveying the meaning of "being involved". The word cooking" carries a concrete meaning, for which it is hard to imagine an envelope for the "container". While the phrase "the house cooking" has turned to mean an abstract domain, it sounds easy and natural to create the "container" for "in"
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2013
  28. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    I have heard the use of 'in prayer,' and you can very easily say, "I spent much time in prayer," without it sounding 'off' (it goes without saying, I'd think, that the word 'meditation' shares this logic and rule with 'prayer'.) However, it is easier to imagine being 'in' these states, and they're also the nouns that the word 'in' is referring to. Focusing on the verbs, I believe, is the incorrect way to go about analysing whether to use 'in' or 'on'. For instance, in "I spend time in bettering myself...", you shouldn't focus on the word 'bettering,' but rather on the word 'myself.' You wouldn't say, "I spend time in myself," unless you're talking about physically or abstractly being within yourself, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. Rather, you'd say "I spend time on myself," meaning, "I focus my attention on myself." Like most of the other cases, they can be reworded, taking out the extra modifying words, more appropriately to:

    "I spend time on my typos."
    "I spend time on my ties to friends and family."

    The last example from that quote, however, works well because it follows the same type of logic as with the words 'prayer' and 'meditation,' so that it's correct to say:

    "I spend time in service to X."

    I could be wrong here, but it appears to me that the word 'spend' appears less active when paired with 'in,' as opposed to it's more active use when paired with 'on.' For instance, 'I spend time in mediation,' doesn't imply in any sense that the meditation is being acted upon, whereas, 'I spend time on myself,' does imply the pronoun 'myself' is being acted upon. Even the phrase, 'act upon' indicates the use of 'on' versus 'in,' though this may be more of a coincidence than a real tie. Obviously, this logic primarily focuses on slightly, to greatly, more abstract ideas. Where the placement of a noun is critical for a more concrete idea, the use of words like 'on,' 'in,' 'above,' 'upon,' 'within,' and so on become much more obvious. For instance, if you wanted to indicate that you were inside a tunnel, you would say, "I'm in a tunnel," and the meaning is quite obvious, whereas standing on top of the tunnel, you would say, "I'm atop the tunnel."

    So, when determining whether to use 'on' or 'in' for a more abstract or complex idea, asking yourself if the phrase, 'act upon,' could be used could help determine that. Stripping the sentence of modifiers, specifiers, and simply additional words that may add more context and information may also help, as I did above. It's easier to analyse the core elements of a sentence when you strip it down to the bare bones - the absolute minimum to make a whole sentence that makes sense and gets the same core idea across. You can act upon yourself, thus why you would say, "I spend time on bettering myself by reading good books," where the bold text indicates the core of the sentence, and the other words are extra and simply add additional information. But you can't act upon meditation, which is an abstract thought or state, thus why it's correct to say, "I spend time in meditation each morning."

    I know I got a little wordy, there, but I was somewhat forming the ideas as I went, analysing the information presented. So you can kind of see my thought processes as I took in and analysed the texts.
  29. sunyaer Senior Member

    Disagree. What being acted upon is "bettering myself", not "myself"

    "I spend time on/in bettering myself by reading good books." can take both "on" and "in", but has a bit different meaning. With "in", the sentence means "being involved/engaged" in the activity of "bettering myself", while with "on" it means "act upon" to create the activity.


    The reason why "I spent a lot of time in cooking" sounds wrong is that the sentence is incomplete. The part after "in" has to be something that has an objective. It sounds OK to me if I say "I spent a lot of time in cooking a delicous meal for my family in the holiday"
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2013
  30. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    I'll try to get this out as pleasantly as possible because I have a tendency to unwittingly sound aggressive to others when I disagree. So, quite frankly, if you want to speak English correctly, you can't simply select when you do and don't want to apply rules and logic unless you're writing something abstract like poetry, which can warp the language to the creator's desires. However, in a more standardised or formal setting (such as writing a scientific essay or a paper for school), what might be acceptable (but also may not be) in conversational, informal, or simply abstract writing wouldn't be acceptable in formal writing. If you want to assign your own specialised, abstract meanings to words that veer away from the standardised 'correct' use, then you can, but when someone asks what is 'right,' they usually mean the more widely or academically accepted usage. I try to refer to such formal and academic use. After all, language itself is abstract by its very nature, and has been utilised for ages and ages to create cryptic, abstract, or warped messages or thoughts. It's very difficult to argue what's right and what's wrong in such cases. Arguably, any usage of language is correct given the appropriate setting, but I don't believe that's what we're talking about.

    So, that all aside, formally and academically, the usage of, "I spend time in bettering myself," is simply wrong, just like how you wouldn't say (when referring to a dog), "That was it's favorite chew toy," because 'it's' means 'it is,' and because possessive pronouns in English do not use the apostrophe; thus, the correct sentence would be, instead, "That was its favorite chew toy." Say you're writing some kind of abstract literature and you want a sentence to have an alternate or inner meaning by changing a word or two, or by changing spelling or punctuation... In such a case, your logic may be appropriate.


    One last thing to note, at risk of unintentionally sounding... rude or whatnot, I see that your native language is Chinese. While typing on the computer and texting can make even competent native English speakers sound like they're saying confused jumbles of words, or using skewed grammar (I've known many great mathematical minds who were horrid at language when it came to writing and typing), if that isn't the case with you, then your grammar in your writing reflects a decent, but not excellent, grasp of English. You may understand what others say and be able to form quite understandable sentences - I'm not questioning that at all - I feel that the slight complexities of the English language that you're trying to tap into may be best argued by someone more savvy in English. Again, I don't want this to sound rude or anything, I just am terrible at effective communications when it comes to interpersonal relationships and such. When I talk about something academic, I get very solid, logical, as-a-matter-of-factly, and have a lot of trouble with the more emotional and interpersonal relations.
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2013
  31. velisarius Senior Member

    British English (Sussex)
    I find it a little odd to use a preposition in this type of sentence. In my opinion it's more usual to say " spend time bettering myself", "spend time cooking", "spend time strengthening" etc. That said, I find nothing wrong with "to spend time on doing something". Or maybe I've missed the point?
  32. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    Many of the difficulties here relate to the relationship between to spend and to expend that over the past 100 years has become somewhat blurred.

    the only modern use of expend is
    The guidance seems to have been –
    spend in <gerund> - I spent a lot of money in renovating my house
    spend in <object> the talent spent in the novel
    spend on <object> – I spent a lot of money on my house.

    This seems to have been justified by taking
    in to mean within a period of activity or within an object
    on to mean upon (for the benefit of) an object.
  33. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    How could I have been so blind to the gerund? But I still agree with velisarius on both of his points: "spending time on doing something" sounds fine, but that the preposition isn't completely necessary with a number of the examples that use on, in particular (or, at least, those which I believe should use the preposition 'on,' if any at all.) There is a slight difference between, "I spent time on cooking," and "I spent time cooking." I still would never say, "I spent time in cooking." I believe that, even if 'spent in' had its uses with gerunds and that first 'object' phrase ("the talent spent in the novel") at one time, in the modern age, there may have been a great shift toward the use of 'spent on' being dominant, other than those abstract uses like "spent time in meditation." For instance, look at this New York Times article title: "Huge Amounts Spent on Immigration, Study Finds". And example with the gerund from a The Australian newspaper article title using 'on' instead of 'in' is: "Just 64pc of Building the Education Revolution spent on building". No one I've ever talked to would use 'spend in' in those examples. Perhaps 'spend in' is more of a relic in those cases. This happens quite a lot in English - some sort of murky distinction between two words leads to some kind of change in meaning or syntax of the word that becomes more popular, or an unusual or less popular syntax becomes replaced with a more common syntax, even if it was different historically.
  34. sunyaer Senior Member


    This sentence actually is provided in post #9
    Let's imagine a context to allow the sentence to make sense:

    A new graduate: "The time after work is boring, some young people spend their time at bars and some go out with their boy/girl friends. I spend a lot of time in bettering myself by reading books at home."

    How do you think this sentence?

    I am glad that my English is rated as "being decent". There are a lot of mistakes that I have made in my posts as I usually rushed out my ideas.
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2013
  35. tʃæz Member

    Washington, US
    English - Pacific Northwest, US
    I honestly don't see how there is any kind of difference. But, anyhow, I'll let whatever other members that wish to to talk about this amongst themselves. I have a lot on my mind and will be effectively removing myself from the conversation. Maybe I'll even unsubscribe so I don't get tempted to hop on here every time someone posts something.
  36. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    My theory—

    "Spend time" has (at least) two distinct meanings. One is rather literal: to invest time. This sense uses "on".

    The other sense: to pass one's time. This sense uses "in" or no preposition.
  37. velisarius Senior Member

    British English (Sussex)

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