In and At school

Can anyone offer a good explanation for when to use “at” and when to use “in” when refering to school? We tend to say “I studied this at school”, or “I am at school”, but then if you hear “I learned to speak French in school”, or “He is in school right now” it doesn’t sound wrong.

Both forms can be found on the Collins Cobuild, in equal numbers, and in analogous sentences, so there may be no hard and fast rules.

I hav enoticed that when specifying the location of something (in/at school) we would tend to use "in. “The rat is in the school.”

hmm. An enigma wrapped up in a conundrum.

Lots of possibilities, but I think the most important is the difference between “in” and “at” when it concerns a person. In general, “in school” refers to the state of being a student or enrolled in an educational institution while “at school” refers to geographic location.
I wish I was in school again.
Mom, can you pick me up at school.

There is of course a lot of overlap and complications because “school” can refer to a school, a hypothetical learning institution, the school building or the campus.

But then in the example I gave about the rat, you would never say “The rat is at school” as this would suggest he was there studying. “The rat is in the school” suggests location. Of course “The rat is in school” without “the” also does suggest that he is studying.

I would agree that your sentence “I wish I was/were in school again” refers to a desire to attend classes again, but then “I wish I was/were at school again” does not strike my ear as wrong either.

Wow! This is as difficult as defining exactly when to use “little” and “small.”

Could it be British/US differences? I would never say “I wish I was in school” or “Mom, can you pick me up at school”

I would always say “thank fuck I’m not still at school” or “Mummikins, would you be an absolute brick and pick Ponsonby and I up from school.”

What if you had a pet rat that you took to show and tell. You run home to avoid getting beaten up and having your lunch money stolen when your mom says, “Where the hell is the rat? I paid 100 bucks for that stupid thing and I’m not buying you another one.” I think you would have to reply, “The rat is at school.”

The reason it is difficult is that it depends on what is at or in school, what that thing’s relationship is to you and what you mean by “school”.

I think “at” denotes general location. Even if you’re playing jumprope with Sandman and the girls on the school playground, you’re still “at school”.

“In school” (no article) means you’re studying. “Sandman will be in school for the summer, trying to get through remedial phys. ed.”

“In the school” refers to specific location - inside the building proper. “The children are spending their lunch hour in the school, because Chainsmoker and Sandman are running around spreading cooties.”

There is a further complication because “at” implies an approved purpose. If you are a student, you can be at school, whereas when I turn up in my undersized uniform, the guards always say, “there is an intruder in the school.” Burglars, monsters, rats, and the SARS virus are not usually “at” anywhere. They are “in” a place. “At” also implies some choice on the part of the party at the location, hence you cannot be “at” prison, deep shit, hell or the dog house.

Now we’re getting somewhere. :unamused:

I think the “in school” “in the school” distinction is an important one as you wouldn’t say “It is in school” to mean the location of something but more what activity he is partaking in (that is, going to school - which also can mean attending class or genuinely going, ie walking to the building). What a mess this English language be!

But what if the vermin are “at” the back of the class, or “at” the supermarket?

But what if the vermin are “at” the back of the class, or “at” the supermarket?

But what if the vermin are “at” the back of the class, or “at” the supermarket?[/quote]
Vermin don’t shop.

Yes I do.