in the beginning or at the beginning

LEARNING PREPOSITIONS: IN THE BEGINNING OR AT THE BEGINNING?

Whether you are a foreigner or a native English speaker, confusing one preposition with another is common. So which is it, in the beginning or at the beginning?

At first glance, you would think that English is much easier to learn than other languages. After all, it is quite direct and plain (aesthetically speaking). Just take the prepositions ‘in’ and ‘at.’ Such small words, yet they have impactful effects on the thought of sentences. Quite mind-boggling and a definitive sentence-changer when used, won’t you agree? And so, to answer the million-dollar question of whether it is ‘in the beginning or at the beginning,’ it is actually conditional. Both are correct and used depending on what you want to convey. The appropriate question then is when and how to use each of them. 

Differences between ‘In the Beginning’ or ‘At the Beginning’ 

But where, pray tell, should we start our discussion? Why, where else than at the beginning (or is it in the beginning? Insert wink).

Alright, alright, we had our fun. Let’s dive in!

When talking about the beginning of life and time almost in a religious sense, then ‘in the beginning’ must be used. Ever heard of that famous Genesis line from the Bible?

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Also, ‘in the beginning’ is used in describing the start of a period of time that can be used even if the timeframe is unclear.

On the other hand, you should use ‘at the beginning’ when talking about a single moment in time or a general starting point. For example:

“English professors must discuss their subject syllabus at the beginning of every school year.” 

Usually, though, many are more inclined to use ‘at the beginning’ than ‘in the beginning.’ 

Just a quick question, dear reader before we proceed. Do you also base grammar on “feeling” it “sounding right” from time to time, or are you normal and base everything on the rules of English?

Which is Used More: In the Beginning or At the Beginning?

According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, during the 1800s up to 1851, ‘in the beginning’ was used more. But that changed when 1852 came, and the favor of the masses turned towards ‘at the beginning.’ It is more often used because it encompasses general times and refers to a specific place, may that be physical or metaphorical.

‘In the Beginning’ Used in a Sentence

For you to clearly understand how both phrases are used, we will provide a couple of examples and reminders.

As stated before, (with an already excellent example) ‘in the beginning’ is typically associated with religious contexts and a period of time. Another key pointer is that ‘in the beginning’ is also usually used when contrasting two situations in time.

‘In the beginning’ works best in the following (and other similar) examples:

  • There was nothing in the beginning.
  • The manga author established the characters and settings in the beginning of the story.
  • Even in the beginning, everyone saw the act as a joke.
  • Some treatments keep patients alive in the beginning but never until the end.
  • Japan was even more traditional in the beginning, but eventually became one (if not the most) of the most advanced countries in the world.
  • Learning English is difficult in the beginning.
  • In the beginning, the workers were only asking for a sizable increase, but now they are demanding more compensation.
  • That was in the beginning when we were still high on young love; it’s different now.
  • I could not hide the disgust in the beginning. I’m glad I managed to school my features again.
  • Life is simple in the beginning, frustrating at best, and hopeless at its worst.

‘At the Beginning’ Used in a Sentence

Now let’s move on to the popular choice of the two. ‘At the beginning’ is used in a much broader sense.

We know that it is confusing (trust us, we get confused as well, especially when we write about specific prepositions like this one). But practice makes perfect, right? And here at Denwa Sensei, we strive to help you be as fluent as possible in the English language. We know that you are capable of that!

Shall we continue our discussion then? 

Great!

Here are some examples of ‘at the beginning’ used in sentences:

  • Capitalization at the beginning of sentences serves an important purpose.
  • Did you know that Microsoft Word and other similar platforms automatically capitalize the first letter of the word at the beginning of your sentence?
  • These tools also add apostrophes at the beginning of sentences, even if you do not put them.
  • We are going to Japan to immerse ourselves in their culture and learn their language at the beginning of June.
  • There is a book that does not use the letter ‘e,’ not only at the beginning but throughout.
  • At the beginning of the Sakura season, Japan hosts festivals.
  • A Shaman presides over at the beginning of a ritual.
  • The national anthem of Japan was played at the beginning of the Olympic Games.
  • Japanese winters start at the beginning of December and last until mid-March.
  • The part at the beginning of the film truly captured the essence of Japanese culture.
  • At the beginning of World War II, Japan, along with allies Germany and Italy, seemed invincible.

Synonyms

While they are usually used interchangeably and their meanings very similar, ‘in the beginning’ and ‘at the beginning’ still have a distinct difference from each other. And even if this is the case, we can still use some synonyms in both cases, depending on their context.

Some of the synonyms you can use (especially if you want to avoid confusion in distinguishing which is which) are as follows:

  • At first
  • At the start
  • Earlier
  • First
  • From day one
  • From the get-go
  • From the beginning
  • From the start
  • Initially
  • In the first place
  • Originally
  • To begin with
  • To start with
  • Since the beginning

These synonyms can work as an alternative in either option.

Is it ‘In the beginning’ of the year or ‘At the beginning’ of the year?

Since we have already tackled the difficult part, the next sections should be much easier to digest.

So, which do you think should we use in this example?

If your answer is ‘in the beginning’ of the year, then you chose…poorly. ‘At the beginning’ of the year is the correct answer because it specifies the time period with ‘of the year.’ Whenever you write ‘at the beginning,’ keep in mind that you have to specify the time period.

You cannot use the ‘in the beginning’ of the year because the preposition ‘in’ is not applicable in this kind of time frame.

Correct: At the beginning of the year, many people make resolutions that they want to keep.

Incorrect: In the beginning of the year, countless resolutions are made, but only a handful is kept.

Is it ‘In the beginning’ of next week or ‘At the beginning’ of next week?

For this one, which one do you think is correct to use? If you look closely, you will notice that this example is not much different from the previous one. The time frame is shorter (it is only a week, after all) but is of the same concept.

Using ‘at the beginning’ is correct because the ‘of next week’ specifies the exact time of beginning. Whereas using ‘in the beginning’ does not involve using a specific time.

Correct: We will learn another English topic at the beginning of next week.

Incorrect: I hope I learn a lot from the discussions in the beginning of next week.  

Think Of vs. Think About

As a bonus, here’s yet another field of confusion for many, the ‘think of vs. think about’ debate. These phrases are often used in the same sense, especially since there is not much of a difference between them. 

But before we try to understand these two, let us first dissect the thing they share in common, the word think. This word can be used as both a noun and a verb. And if one were to trace its origin, you will find it in the Old English word thencan that is of Germanic origin and is related to Dutch and German denken

And aside from ‘of’ and ‘about,’ ‘think’ also works well with ‘again,’ ‘aloud,’ ‘big,’ and etc.

Think Of

You can use this phrase to express remembrance. So whenever you call something to mind, make sure to use ‘think of.’

Additionally, this expression lasts for less time. This means that the thought only comes to mind for a short time and then goes away.

Here is an example:

Think of all the Takoyaki we could eat after finishing our English exam.  

Think About

‘Think about’ is used in expressing a sense of affection or any other feeling. And when considering the duration of the thought, it suggests a lengthy one. The thought that came to mind may stay for a while. Basically, you do not just remember something or someone and then forget about them after.

One example would be:

Think about the things you learned about the English Language often to solidify your understanding of them. 

Back to Basics: Prepositions

Aside from ‘in’ and ‘at,’ there are many more prepositions in the English language that we confuse with each other. Let us discuss the other prepositions we often encounter.

But first, just what is a preposition?

A preposition is a word or group of words that signify direction, location, spatial relations, time and to introduce an object that is/are placed before nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns. Prepositions, whenever used, are highly idiomatic. This means that despite there being rules of usage, prepositions are mostly dictated by fixed expressions. Therefore, it is better to memorize the phrase instead of just the specific preposition itself.

Examples of Prepositions

Here are some of the most commonly used prepositions (aside from ‘in’ and ‘at’) that you need in your English arsenal:

  • Aboard
  • About
  • Above
  • Across
  • After
  • Against
  • Along
  • Among
  • Around
  • As
  • Before
  • Behind
  • Below
  • Beside/s
  • Between
  • Beyond
  • But
  • By
  • Despite
  • Down
  • During
  • Except
  • For
  • From
  • Inside
  • Into
  • Like
  • Near
  • Of
  • Off
  • On
  • Onto
  • Outside
  • Per
  • Plus
  • Round
  • Save
  • Since
  • Toward
  • Sunder
  • Unlike
  • Until
  • Up
  • Upon
  • Versus
  • Via
  • With

Rules in Using Prepositions

There really isn’t any reliable structure or formula in determining which preposition to use for a particular combination of words. An excellent way to do so, though, is to read as much as one can. You can pay attention to what sounds right (hey! It’s a normal thing, after all) and use those in the future.

Tools like Google Ngrams are also useful in knowing which prepositions typically go with particular words. But do not expect this tool to explain the difference in meanings between prepositional phrases such as ‘pay off,’ which means to bribe, and ‘pay for,’ which means to purchase.

Prepositions of Direction

When referring to direction, you can use the prepositions:

  • In
  • Into
  • On
  • Onto
  • To

Some examples are:

  • People love walking in Japan.
  • The students walked into the room with excitement for their English exam.
  • The Sake is on me, said the newly hired employee in a Japanese firm.
  • The English book fell onto the floor.
  • It’s time to go to Japan.

Prepositions of Place/Location

If you are referring to a place, you can use the following prepositions:

  • In (particular)
  • At (general vicinity)
  • On (surface)
  • Inside (something contained)

Here is an example of the preposition inside:

  • The passengers moved inside the bullet train swiftly.

But if you are referring to an object close to a point, use the prepositions:

  • Among
  • Between
  • By
  • Near
  • Next to
  • Opposite

Some examples of these prepositions include:

  • The memo spread quickly among the employees of Tokyo Electric Power.
  • Which do you prefer to learn between the Japanese and Korean languages?
  • Tourists go to Japan by plane.
  • There is a ramen shop near the English school.
  • The Karaoke bar is next to the ramen shop.
  • Dotonbori is in the opposite direction you are currently going.

But when the object you are referring to is higher or lower than a point, use these prepositions instead:

  • Above
  • Over
  • Beneath
  • Below
  • Under
  • Underneath

Their examples are as follows:

  • We were flying above the bright lights of Japan by now.
  • Japan is just one of her many stops for her travels all over the world.
  • You need to wear a sweater beneath your coat during winter in Japan.
  • Even if the sun disappeared below the horizon, Japan will always be the Land of the Rising Sun.
  • Under Akihito’s reign as the 125th Emperor of Japan, he inspired his people, especially in 2011 when two major disasters hit them.
  • There is an elderly couple that sells Ikayaki underneath the English learning center.

Prepositions of Spatial Relationships

For spatial relations, you can use prepositions like:

  • Across
  • Against
  • Ahead of
  • Along
  • Among
  • Around
  • Behind
  • Beside
  • From
  • In front of
  • Near
  • Off
  • Out of
  • Through
  • Toward
  • Under
  • Within

Examples of these prepositions, when used in a sentence, are:

  • We took a ferry across the waters of Tsuruga to reach Tomakomai.
  • The Japanese people are against injustices.
  • Our friends went ahead of us to prepare for the Nagasaki Lantern Festival.
  • During our vacation in Japan, we walked along the beaches of Ishigaki.
  • It is difficult to spot anyone among the crowds during the Yuki Matsuri festival.
  • You should get around to visiting the countryside of Japan.
  • The Japanese Government is behind its people during a crisis.
  • Contentment is found in as simple as walking beside a loved one when the Sakura flowers are in bloom.
  • From this moment forward, you will be able to read, speak, and write using the English language.
  • I can’t believe that Hayao Miyazaki has once stood in front of me.
  • I had the privilege to be near him for what seemed like forever.
  • He waved before he drove off.
  • He was out of my sight before I even had the time to process everything.
  • And through the populated streets he went.
  • Miyazaki was heading toward a nearby town.
  • He said that he liked driving under the stars.
  • Then he told me not to worry because he would reach his destination within an hour.

Prepositions of Time

If you are to refer to one point in time, you can use the prepositions:

  • In (paired with parts of the day, months, years, and even seasons)
  • At (used with time of the day; can also be combined with noon, night, and midnight)
  • On (used with days of the week)

But if you are referring to extended periods of time, it would be wise to use the prepositions:

  • By
  • During
  • For
  • From…to
  • From…until
  • Since
  • With
  • Within

Some examples of these prepositions would be:

  • Temperatures can range from approximately 21 to 32 °C during the summers in Japan.
  • The students are waiting for the bullet train to arrive.
  • The students learned everything from prepositions to tenses of verbs.
  • The roads will be closed to vehicles from 7 A.M. until 10 P.M. in celebration of the Nebuta Matsuri festival.
  • The English students had been anxious since the exam was announced.
  • I wish I had been with you to watch the lanterns light up the sky during the Nagasaki Lantern Festival.
  • She was holding the excitement within her when she found out she would visit Japan in the fall.

Prepositions After Adjectives and Adverbs

It is common to see adjectives and verbs followed by certain prepositions. And similarly, in the case of the previous examples: ‘pay off’ and ‘pay for,’ adjectives and verbs may be followed by various prepositions that give phrases all too different meanings.

Aside from Google’s Book Ngram, you can also use online dictionaries like the trusted Merriam Webster or corpora like The Corpus of Contemporary American English to find which prepositions, adjectives, and verbs go well together.

Adjectives + Prepositions

Some common examples of adjectives and prepositions that pair together are:

  • Accustomed to: She was finally accustomed to the culture of Japan.
  • Beneficial to: Regularly practicing speaking and writing in English will prove beneficial to students trying to be multilingual.
  • Capable of: The teacher is sure that her students are capable of mastering the English language in no time.
  • Different from: There is no denying that the Japanese language is different from the English language.
  • Employed at: He plans to move overseas because he is employed at a Japanese firm.
  • Familiar with: He needs to be familiar with the streets of Tokyo soon.

Verbs + Prepositions

Moving on to common verb and preposition pairings:

  • Arrived at: The tourists arrived at the airport in time for the hotel shuttle to take them to their hotel in Sapporo.
  • Belong to: Japan may not be my home country, but it has become a place I truly belong to.
  •  Concentrate on: You have to concentrate on learning English.
  • Differ from: A lot of things in America differ from Japan.
  • Insist on: Our kids insist on visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Japan.
  • Succeed in: The students will succeed in completing their English course if they put in the effort.

Prepositional Phrases and Wordiness

Both pronouns and many prepositional phrases usually create wordiness in sentences. Fortunately, you can shorten these types of sentences to achieve clarity by limiting the use of prepositions. More is not merrier in this regard.

Unnecessary Prepositions

It also goes without saying that any unnecessary prepositions must be left out of sentences. Doing so will create better and concise writing.

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

There was once a time when ending sentences with a preposition was frowned upon. The rule is based on Latin grammar. But while many aspects of Latin have integrated themselves into English, ironically enough, these same rules can make the thought of sentences unclear. As such, it is now acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition in case the alternative word creates confusion or is overly formal.  

For example: I already have Japanese Yen. Who should I give my rent to?

This may be the case for informal writing, but you should avoid ending your sentences with prepositions if you are writing a research paper or business proposal.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.