Why ''at' instead of ''in''?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Mr_Croft, Dec 1, 2007.

  1. Mr_Croft New Member

    Spanish, Spain
    Hello everyone,

    I need your help once again. Today, I was reading a book in English when a sentence caught my attention.

    ''Shakespeare died at Stratford-upon-Avon'' --> Why 'at' instead of 'in'?

    Thank you in advance,

    PS: feel free to correct my mistakes.
  2. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    A good question, Mr Croft.
    I would have said he died in Stratford-upon-Avon.
    When was your book written?
  3. Mr_Croft New Member

    Spanish, Spain
    Well, I don't know when it was written. The book I'm reading is Romeo & Juliet but that sentence is from the introduction of the book, which is written in Modern English.

    Feel free to correct my mistakes
  4. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England

    Might it have something to do with whether he was a permanent resident, as opposed to a passing visitor. I think if you lived there people would be more likely to say he died in Stratford, while if he was visiting they'd say he died at Stratford. In the same way that if one lived in Manchester you'd say I'm here in Manchester, while if you went on a journey you'd say I'm at Bradford, for instance. I'm not putting this forward as a general rule, but as a slight tendency.

    I think the size of the town makes a difference too. It would be odd, to my ear, to say I'm at London, or I'm at Paris, unless, perhaps, they were short stops on a long journey.
  5. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
  6. Thomas1

    Thomas1 Senior Member

    polszczyzna warszawska
    I think that's a very good summary.

    I remember I came acorss a similar example and what I found out was more or less what you have written, Thomas. So if a town/city is a point in one's itinerary then it is fine to use at.

    I will try to find the thread that deals with it.


    Voilà. (especially posts 16 and 17).
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I remember that thread too. But I can't remember enough to find it.
    HERE are many threads about prepositions, but without more to search for ...
  8. Bonjules Senior Member

    I'm not so sure this is terribly valid, but to my (admittedly non-native )ears 'at' sounds a bit more formal, special, 'distinguished' here.
    'He's buried at Westminster Abbey'.
    To a degree that would go along with the 'seize' argument,
    modern mega-cities are hardly 'special' in that sense.
  9. nzfauna

    nzfauna Senior Member

    Wellington, New Zealand
    New Zealand, English
    Is it possible that "Stratfore-upon-Avon" is a place, like a hospital or something?
  10. Thomas1

    Thomas1 Senior Member

    polszczyzna warszawska
    Rather not.

    Now the usage of at seems strange because Shakespeare seemed to live there:
    The old town of Stratford is synonymous in the minds of most travelers with the name of its most famous citizen, playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a half-timbered house in Henley Street, and died at his house of New Place in 1616.

    Here's a possible source of the sample sentence:
    Shakespeare died at Stratford upon Avon on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the chancel of the church, before the high altar.

    Perhaps the whole implies Shakespeare died at his house in Stratford upon Avon? Or it is a mistake. :)

  11. Blues Piano Man

    Blues Piano Man Senior Member

    Boulder, CO
    USA English
    I remember a previous discussion:
    sells snacks in/at a night market

    Blues :)
  12. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    It has absolutely nothing to with whether or not one is resident. It so happens that in English (BE at least) you can not be anywhere else but 'in' a town, city, village etc. It is impossible to be 'at' it. You are either 'in' it or 'outside' it, no other preposition works here.:)
  13. mgarizona

    mgarizona Senior Member

    Phoenix, AZ
    US - American English
    Isn't Burgess's book on Marlowe called Dead Man at Deptford?

    The OED doesn't consider it odd; this is definition 2 of "at":

    With proper names of places: Particularly used of all towns, except the capital of our own country, and that in which the speaker dwells (if of any size), also of small and distant islands or parts of the world.
  14. jamesjiao

    jamesjiao Senior Member

    New Zealand English and Mandarin Chinese
    The use of 'at' sounds a little informal here.
  15. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    I reckon this is just personal usage/preference.
    When I was teaching English I used to say at = a specific point on a line (which tallies with TT in post #4); in = somewhere inside a specific area on a [map? ~ I forget the exact words ~ it was mainly just to shut people up and make it look like I knew what I was talking about].
  16. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    Titles of books do not necessarily follow generally accepted grammar practice, there is such a thing known as poetic licence'. The only occasion where I can recall where 'at' can correctly be used with the name of a town is in railway announcements 'the next train calls at Peterborough, York, etc. and other announcements like 'there wiill be motor-racing at Silverstone. However in the latter case, Silverstone is a large area of land, e.g. a race track, and you are not going to be 'in' it ever, unless of course you happen to be buried there! I do know that in AE 'at' a town is not uncommon. It would be interesting if the OED came up with a few examples to back up their definition.:)
  17. mgarizona

    mgarizona Senior Member

    Phoenix, AZ
    US - American English
    They give several, of course:

    "The Parliament met at Edinburgh" is one.

    Perhaps the introduction in question was written by an American, because it doesn't sound that odd to my ears.
  18. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
  19. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    But of what, Porteño? I can't go along with your statement that it's unidiomatic to say he died at Stratford, and I'll try to justify my view.

    Take Liverpool: quite a large city, certainly large enough to push people, under part of my putative theory, to say in rather than at. Yet there are 1,280,000 google hits for at Liverpool.

    Many of these aren't germane, like:

    How long will Rafa Benitez survive at Liverpool?
    information on laser activities at Liverpool

    But many go directly against you, like:

    Finlay was born at Liverpool on 17 June
    Their first child Thomas was born at Liverpool
    Marguerite Trahan wife of Jean Hebert died at Liverpool
    Sarah died at Liverpool in 1946 aged 89 years

    Comparing the two expressions:

    6,540 for died at Liverpool
    62,200 for died in Liverpool

    Certainly in Liverpool is preferred, but are you really saying the 6,540 people who chose died at Liverpool are wrong?

    Take a smaller place, Padstow, in Cornwall.

    3 hits for died at Padstow
    4 hits for died in Padstow

    not enough to be a sample.

    or one slightly larger (than Padstow), Macclesfield in Cheshire.

    340 for died at Macclesfield
    2,480 for died in Macclesfield

    One interesting point for our debate is that the occurrences of births and deaths at rather than in a town are mostly older; that one for 1946 is the latest I came across.

    But you don't have to look very far on the web to find things like this:

    I was at Blackpool yesterday night (it tooks AGES to get there as I don't actually live there) and my dad took some video(s) when David + others (but who cares about them ey?) came on stage. Shall I bother putting something together? LOL

    dated Sept 1st 2007, or these:

    the last time I was at Blackpool was in May 2001
    I was at Carlisle around 5 a.m the city was empty and it was still dark, I decided to wait till 6:30 am to head to the river Eden that goes through the city

    they suggest that at + name of town is very much a current form.
  20. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    Your post is impressive TT, but, at least to me, unconvincing. Yes, I honestly believe that those 6,540 people are wrong.

    However, the dictionary definitions are far from definitive and open to discussion. Our friends across the ditch are also ambiguous in their usage. Add to that that, apart from Padstow (and Cornwall is another question altogether!), all your quotes came from the north of England, then I have to accept that there may even be a regional difference within the UK,

    It is quite obvious that we can argue over this until the cows come home, but, while it might be fun, we are really not getting anywhere, nor ever will. The 'in/an' saga is never ending. I'm afraid Mr_Croft will have to make his own decision. It's obviously a case of personal preference, but I will continue to instill in my students that you should not use 'at' with the name of a town, city, etc. except in special circumstances.:)
  21. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    TT, I think you've hit the nail on the head when you say that born/died at town X is an older usage. I seem to recall reading literary letters which began "At London...", but I can't at the moment find an example.

    As regards more modern examples of at town X, I would say that these are envisaging X as a point (the train stopped at Carlisle[railway station]); as an institution (he's been at Liverpool [football club] for years); or even as an event (were you at Glastonbury [= the Glastonbury music festival]?).

  22. Porteño Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    British English
    Yes, it's often a question of context, as in the instances you have cited. It's virtually impossible to be precise or definitive.
  23. Blues Piano Man

    Blues Piano Man Senior Member

    Boulder, CO
    USA English
    A theory. Worthless? Perhaps. :)

    I suspect that some of the time, using at vs. in indicates at least a subtle difference in the way you think of the place you are referring to.

    Let's assume for the moment that it's the speaker that is in or at someplace.

    If you say in Xyz, your focus is on Xyz and its connection to you. Xyz is a meaningful place to you. Maybe you know someone there. Maybe you have business there.

    If you say at Xyz, your focus is on Xyz's connection to the rest of the world -- maybe its positioning with respect to the rest of the world. Maybe for you, it's just a point on the map. Even if you have a connection with Xyz, that's not your focus.

    "I'll be at a town in Nebraska."

    "I'll be at Goose Falls -- at least I think that's the name of the place. It's about ten miles before I get to Red Lodge."
    -- You're not thinking about being in Goose Falls. It's just a location. You have no connection to it.

    "Are you staying in Pendleton?"
    -- You are asking specifically about a town that you know about. It's a place with hotels, people, stores.

    I realize that this is not so much different from some of the other ideas posted here. And it certainly does not address the cases where people simply use in or at incorrectly without any reason for it.

    Blues :)
  24. konungursvia Banned

    Canada (English)
    I think it is all right to write "at Stratford" as the OP reports. However, I feel its meaning is different to that of the phrase "in Stratford." The reason for this position is the following: when using a city name as a metonymy for a more particular type of place, such as a university, a hospital, a theatre, a school or a church, we do usually use at rather than in. Here in North America, we would of course use "in" to refer to the city, but we would say "at Toronto" or "at Harvard" to refer to the University of Toronto or Harvard University in terms of the municipality in which they are located. If the writer judges it obvious to his contemporary reader that it is obviously a type of institution, i.e. a parish in the Church of England, a hospital in the Church system, or indeed a university, he might well write "Shakespeare died at Stratford-upon-Avon." Here in the North American university system we still use this sort of convention. I feel the author considered it likely his reader knew what sort of place Shakespeare died in, and followed the convention to which I am referring. Hope this helps.
  25. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello Kunungursvia,

    I fully accept the usage of at which you outline. That was why I rejected How long will Rafa Benitez survive at Liverpool? - clearly Football Club is implied, and they aren't simply talking of the town.

    I'm not persuaded that Shakespeare died at Stratford-upon-Avon is a comparable case at all. Stratford is a town, with houses, pubs, and a police station. The form was common in English, until quite recently, and hasn't gone completely. Mr Croft read it in an introduction to Romeo and Juliet, and the author of the introduction may have been using a deliberate semi-archaism or reflecting the well-known documents recording Shakespeare's death.
  26. konungursvia Banned

    Canada (English)
    Hello Thomas,

    I respect your answer, but think it possible the writer considered the reader in the know about Shakespeare's family home in Stratford, as well as his residence in London. So, following the convention I'm talking about, dying "in" Stratford would have (rather vaguely) given only the town as the general location, whereas "at" Stratford would mean at the family estate in Stratford. But I am only hypothesizing; we have an educated Englishmen using the phrase, and must assume a very logical reason for doing so.

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