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At The Store vs. In The Store

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There is often confusion among English learners about when to say at a place or in a place. In the following section, we are going to look at the basic tendency we have about this issue and some special case examples.

We often use both at and in to talk about position or location. Generally the meaning is the same. Both of these sentences tell us Jack’s location:

  1. Jack is at his office.
  2. Jack is in his office.

So, when we speak in a general way, we can use either at or in to indicate the location. However, both at and in have some specific uses and meanings when you need to be less general and more specific.

We use at when we talk about a store or a building. At gives us the nuance about what usually happens in that store or building. Notice the verb is not the be verb but a verb that also indicates the usual action in the location. We tend to use at this way.

  1. I bought this shirt on sale at the department store.
  2. Jack had a coffee at a nice café on Madison Ave.
  3. Let’s study at the library after class.

I think that when we don’t care about the action, but just want to indicate the location using the be verb, we often use in. We tend to use in this way.

  1. I was in the department store yesterday.
  2. Jack is in a café on Madison Ave.
  3. We have been in the library for three hours. Let’s go home.

Again, this is what we tend to do when using at and in.
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