The Meaning and Use of the Preposition ‘On’

Prepositions are words that play a vital role in sentence structure and meaning. They help establish relationships between different elements in a sentence, such as nouns, pronouns and phrases, by indicating location, time, direction, possession and more. Prepositions can be challenging to non-native speakers of English due to their nuanced use. Because prepositions tend to vary across languages, it is very difficult to give an exclusive translation from say Polish to English, or Spanish to English, and one preposition frequently translates to two or three in another language, and vice versa.

Mastering prepositions is essential in clear and accurate communication because the use of an inappropriate preposition in combination with a certain verb can distinctly alter the intended meaning of a sentence. For more details on prepositions in general, please see the relevant post. Learning the various contexts in which prepositions are used is the mark of an advanced speaker of a language; there are around 150 prepositions altogether in the English language, but the most commonly used and confused are ‘along’, ‘at’, ‘by’, ‘during’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘on’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘to’ and ‘with’.

This post is going to focus on the preposition on.

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The origins of the word

The preposition ‘on’ dates back to Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). Old English was the language spoken in parts of what are now present-day England and southern Scotland, from approximately the mid-5th century to the mid-12th century. The Old English form of ‘on’ was also identical to its present day incarnation, and it was used with similar meanings as in modern English, indicating position, attachment, time and other related senses. The word ‘on’ was derived from the Proto-Germanic preposition ‘ana’, which had similar meanings.

Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, hypothetical common ancestor of the Germanic languages, which belong to the broader Indo-European language family. It is not a language that was ever spoken or written, but is rather a theoretical reconstruction based on linguistic evidence and comparisons between the known Germanic languages. The Germanic languages include modern-day German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and others. Proto-Germanic is believed to have been spoken during the late prehistoric period, around 500 BC to 500 AD.

Moreover, the word ‘on’ has ancient roots, still further back, in the Indo-European language family. Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is believed to be a common ancestral language of many modern languages such as English, Spanish, Hindi and Russian to name a few, but no written records of PIE exist as it predates the invention of writing. ‘On’ is believed to be ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘*h₂en’ or ‘*h₂n’ meaning ‘in’ or ‘into.’ From this root, various prepositions evolved in different Indo-European languages. (The use of the asterisk is a convention in historical linguistics to distinguish between words or roots that are known to have existed in a language’s written records and those that are inferred or reconstructed through linguistic analysis.)

Over time, as the English language evolved through the Middle English period (approximately the 1100 – 1500 AD), the spelling and pronunciation of ‘on’ underwent changes, but its core meaning remained largely intact. During the Middle English period, the influence of Norman French, following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, brought new vocabulary and influenced the development of the English language. Much Latin was also used at this time in the church and for official business, and therefore Latin and French prepositions and phrases also integrated into the English language during this time.

The preposition ‘on’ continued to be widely used through the Early Modern English period (approximately the 1500 – 1800 AD) and on to the present day. Indeed, throughout its history, ‘on’ has been a stable and essential preposition in English, used to indicate a variety of relationships, such as position, time, condition and direction. Its use and meaning have evolved with the changing linguistic landscape, but its fundamental role as a preposition has remained constant and, today, ‘on’ remains one of the most frequently used prepositions in the English language. Its uses are detailed as follows.


‘On’ is used to specify days and dates:

  • I will meet you on Friday.
  • Our anniversary is on the 15th of August.


‘On’ is used to indicate a specific position or location, especially in relation to larger geographic areas:

  • The city is north of the border.
  • The restaurant is on the High Street.


‘On’ is often used to indicate that something is in contact with, or resting on a surface:

  • The book is on the table.
  • The cat is on the mat.


‘On’ can indicate the mode of transportation:

  • I usually travel on the bus
  • She travels on the underground.

Addition or inclusion

‘On’ can be used to suggest inclusion or addition to something:

  • I’d like to put my name on the list.
  • Please include my contributions on the report.

Attached or fixed

‘On’ can indicate that one thing is attached or fixed to another:

  • The picture is hanging on the wall.
  • There is a sticker on the laptop.

Supported or based on

‘On’ can signify a foundation or basis for something:

  • The film is based on a true story.
  • The decision was made on the evidence presented.

Involvement in an activity

‘On’ can indicate participation or engagement in an activity:

  • He’s always on the phone.
  • They’re working on a new project.

Media or technology

‘On’ can indicate a particular medium or technology used for communication or entertainment:

  • She read about it on the internet.
  • I saw the news on the telly.

Agreement or decision

Finally, ‘on’ can signify agreement or acceptance of something:

  • They settled on a compromise.
  • We’re still waiting for their decision on the matter.

Phrasal verbs and collocations

A phrasal verb is a native English expression containing a verb and a preposition (and sometimes also an adverb or other parts of speech); it is a phrase that functions as a verb. The English language, along with a number of other Central European languages, but perhaps slightly more so, is notorious for having a large number of phrasal verbs. The following are some of the better known verbs that collocate with ‘on’, along with some phrasal verbs with their definitions provided.

  • Based on
  • Take on = accept, undertake
  • Put on = dress, pretend
  • Go on
  • Carry on = continue
  • Turn on
  • Run on
  • Write on
  • Call on = visit
  • Play on
  • Settle on = decide
  • Keep on = retain
  • Work on
  • Depend on
  • Act on
  • Focus on
  • Hold on
  • Catch on
  • Look on
  • Press on

As is common with phrasal verbs, these examples are not all simply a collocation of a verb and a preposition, and some of these word combinations are puzzlingly not entirely true to their literal meanings!


These are some of the principle ways in which the preposition ‘on’ is commonly used, although it may have additional applications depending on the context. As you will now have understood, of the three main types of prepositions: temporal prepositions, spatial prepositions and dependent prepositions, ‘on’ has applications in all of these categories.

If one were to translate ‘on’ to its equivalent in some other languages such as Portuguese, Spanish or Italian, some confusion could arise because it can be translated as multiple words, and vice versa for the equivalent forms in other languages. For this reason, it is best to learn English dependent prepositions in context with their best known collocations and most common uses, as detailed in this post!

If you have any comments, questions or requests, please do add them below.

Exercises to practise

Have a go at the following exercises to see whether ‘on’ is the correct preposition in the given contexts.

Created on By Michelle
Portrait of Student

The Preposition 'On'

Practising using the preposition 'on'

1 / 15

Please, try to focus ------ the matter at hand

2 / 15

The keys were left ------ the kitchen worktop

3 / 15

The painting hangs ----- the wall

4 / 15

She keeps her jewellery ------ the wooden box

5 / 15

The children are playing ------ the park

6 / 15

If you don't act ------ this, your reputation will diminish

7 / 15

The outcome depends entirely ----- his opinion

8 / 15

The concert will be held ----- the stadium next weekend

9 / 15

I will meet you ------ the coffee shop at 3 o’clock

10 / 15

Hold ----- tight and don't let go

11 / 15

You carry ------ without me; I don't want to hold you up

12 / 15

The students are studying hard to prepare ----- the upcoming exam

13 / 15

Remember to put ----- something warm

14 / 15

It's time to take ----- a new challenge

15 / 15

Sarah went ----- the grocery store to buy some fruits and vegetables

Your score is

The average score is 100%



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