ON TIME vs. IN TIME: What’s the DIFFERENCE between English prepositions?

Telling time is one of the most important lessons you will need to learn in English. What’s the difference between “on time” and “in time,” two very common (and easily confused) prepositional phrases? Prepositions can be such a challenging topic when you start studying English. Check out Gabby’s lesson below to find out!


Being able to speak correctly about time — whether you talk about timeframes in an academic setting, a professional setting, or in a casual conversation — is such an important part of everyday English. “On time” and “in time” are both correct expressions of time, but they don’t mean the same thing! It can be tricky for new English learners to tell how they each mean something different.


Imagine that you’re rushing to get to work or school, and something stops you from arriving at the time you were supposed to — meaning you will not be on time. Maybe you got stuck in traffic, maybe the train or bus you were on took longer than expected, or maybe you bumped into a friend on the way to your destination.

Have you ever visited Japan? The trains are almost always on time, meaning that they are never late! Lots of other countries are famous for having great public transportation that is consistently on time, meaning that commuters are able to arrive to their destinations on time as well.

This prepositional phrase is less stressful. It is a scheduled, predictable, and agreed-upon time.


“Will I get there in time?” This thought might cross your mind if you live in a city like Boston, where the public transportation is a little less reliable than in Japan, especially in the winter time. In time suggests that you will not have enough time, between now and when you’re supposed to arrive, to not be late. If your train is late, and you have to be somewhere before the next train is supposed to arrive, you will not arrive to your destination in time for whatever appointment you had scheduled.


This one idiom means that you arrive so close to the very last chance to be in time for something. Imagine that you’re trying to jump on a train or bus. Imagine that you’re running to the platform and you just manage to get in the doors before they close. You managed to get on the bus or train in the nick of time! Whew 🙂 If you had not shown up at that time, you would have missed the train.

If you’d like to learn more about how to use these phrases, and how to make sure you’re always using the right one, click on Gabby’s lesson below!

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