Mark arrived on time. Or was it in time? At time???
The use of prepositions in English can be quite confusing to native speakers of other languages. Prepositional phrases can be even trickier because they seem to have a special logic of their own; one needs to learn them one at a time, understanding the exact meaning of each phrase. In this post we’ll look into some of the common prepositional phrases with the noun time.
To be / arrive / come somewhere on time suggests a particular time and punctuality. Think of it in terms of appointments, timetables, schedules… If something is on time, it means it isn’t late. It goes according to plan, and there’s no sense of rush or hurry.
The coach is set to arrive on time at 17:45. (i.e. It will arrive by that time, it isn’t expected to be late.)
I finished my homework on time. (i.e. I wasn’t late with my homework, I met the deadline quite comfortably.)
In time refers to or implies another event, and so this phrase is often followed by for. It implies tardiness (lateness), i.e. that something is being done at the very last moment, with very little or insufficient time between the two activities / events:
I arrived in time for the exam. (If I’d arrived a minute later, I would’ve been too late.)
I finished my homework in time. (I did it just before the implied deadline.)
It can also be followed by the infinitive of purpose:
I managed to get back to the office just in time to meet the new clients. (Had I arrived a minute or two later, I would’ve missed them.)
There are also phrases where there’s another word (adjective) inserted between ‘in’ and ‘time’, such as:
- in due time = eventually, when ready:
I will finish my studies in due time.
- in good time = early enough; not late
I arrived at the meeting in good time.
AT + […] + TIME
What about at time? The combination of at + time does exist, and it’s very productive, but never in that form – you need to add other words or change the form slightly to make these phrases. These are all set phrases, meaning that the use of articles or singular / plural doesn’t change depending on how your sentence goes:
- at the time (= during some past period)
He lived in France in the 1990s. He worked as a translator at the time.
- at the present time (= now, currently, at the moment; note that this phrase can sound odd, as it’s enough to say “at present”)
At the present time, he is working as a teacher.
- at the right time (= perfect time, moment, opportunity for something; often used as part of the longer phrase: ‘in the right place at the right time’)
I got my new job almost by accident. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
- at any time (= possibly very soon, but the exact time is unknown; DON’T confuse it with ‘any time’ and ‘anytime’, as they are used differently)
My phone battery could die at any time.
Also, note these two common phrases with the noun ‘time’ in plural:
- at times (= sometimes, occasionally)
While he was working abroad, he would feel homesick at times.
- at all times (= always, constantly)
You should carry your ID card at all times.
There are also many phrases with the following structure: at + indefinite article + adjective + time:
- at a bad time (= inconvenient time)
I’m sorry, I can’t talk with you right now. You’ve caught me at a bad time. (i.e. I’m busy doing something else.)
- at an appropriate time (= at some point, when the time is right. This is a very vague expression: we don’t know or we don’t want to say when something will happen.)
We’ll contact you about your job application at an appropriate time.
This prepositional phrase implies gradual change, or something happening / progressing over a period of time:
If you practice regularly, your language skills will improve with time.
The meaning of this one is similar to ‘with time’ above; it implies a long period of time. Don’t confuse it with the noun ‘overtime’, which means something totally different.
Many important things happened to me over time.
‘About time’ is used for something happening now, or about to happen, that should have already happened; it should’ve been done and finished by now. It is followed by verb(s) in the Past Simple tense.
It’s about time I tidied my room. (i.e. I should have tidied it days ago, and now I really need to do it.)
I hope this clears up at least some of the confusion! The best way to learn all these phrases is by using them in your own context. Think about the situations when you were (or weren’t) somewhere on time / in time. What do you like doing at times? Make a few predictions about what might happen over time. It’s always a good idea to write down any such examples, so you have them for future reference – you are also welcome to share them in the comments section below.
Finally, you can also do this multiple-choice grammar quiz that I’ve created for this post.