Lesson #280: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Some Tricky Prepositions of Time (‘in the’, ‘at’, ‘on’)

📙 The old man, contrary to expectation, seemed to be on the way to recovery, when one night Silas, sitting up by his bedside, observed that his usual audible breathing had ceased.

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

How would you describe something dramatic and memorable that happened to you ‘one night’, as happened to Silas Marner?

Some novels tell the story of one or a few memorable characters.

Other novels tell a story full of dramatic twists and turns in its plot.

George Eliot’s short novel, Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861) is a book that combines these two in a way that you don’t forget. 📙

✍️ We are going to focus in this Lesson on some key moments in the story and 4 essential grammar tips on how to correctly describe an action’s taking place in time (also known as sentences with prepositions of time).


This novel tells the story of how one man overcomes the bitterness and pain of unjust suffering through the act of welcoming a child into his life.

📜 Silas Marner is about a middle-aged weaver (someone who made clothes with wool and a loom) who had a troubled life when he was younger.

He had been part of a religious community where everyone had trusted and seemed to care for one another. In fact, he had even been engaged to marry a lovely young woman in his church. However, quite suddenly, his life changed. One night, while Silas was trying to help a sick old man in the church, his best friend stole money from the patient (sick person) and then blamed Silas for the crime.

Silas was innocent and protested his innocence (strongly, publicly said that he was innocent). But it was to no avail (without success). He was forced to leave his beloved community, including his bride-to-be, because everyone suspected (thought he was guilty of) he had committed the crime.

He then moved to a small town called Raveloe, hoping to start a new life there as a weaver. Unfortunately for him, nobody there seemed to trust him either. They didn’t know anything about his past life or misfortune (bad luck, bad experiences), but they were suspicious all the same and so they mostly ignored him.

Silas’ only pleasure in life is to work hard and earn money. He feels that the money he earns is a kind of respect and tribute (something showing gratitude or respect) from the people in Raveloe who pay him for his work. So he gathers his earnings (the money he is earning) in a small hole in the ground inside his house. Every evening he looks for his money to count it, and no one knows about it but himself. Or so he thinks …

Then suddenly, one night while he is out looking for wood for his fire, he returns home to find that his money is stolen! Who could have taken it from him? Had anyone been watching him? Had anyone seen where he was hiding it?

In his distress, he turns to the village people for help. They respond readily (quickly, with eagerness and helpfulness) and try to find the stolen money, but to no avail (with no success).

Silas feels more desolate (hopeless, deeply saddened, and in despair) than ever before in his life.

But then, everything changes quite unexpectedly for the lonely Silas – one day he comes home to find a baby girl is at his doorstep. She doesn’t have a name; she doesn’t have a family. Silas is no stranger to suffering (he is familiar with, used to, has experience of suffering), and he welcomes her into his home and raises her as his daughter.

The question is: will the village people continue to befriend Silas in his difficulties and the challenges he faces (especially as a single man raising a little child)? Will Silas find new trust in people, now that Eppie has reawakened (stirred up again, brought to life) something in his soul?


As you will notice from my short retelling of the story here, there are many turning points (influential moments) in the story that happen quite quickly:

  • Silas’ friend robs the old man one night.
  • The next day, Silas is stopped and questioned over a crime he knows nothing about.
  • His fiancée suddenly rejects him (she eventually marries his friend).
  • In a matter of a few days, Silas is kicked out of (rejected from) his church and community.
  • Silas arrives in Raveloe and quickly starts working as a weaver there.
  • After fifteen years of living in the village, all his life savings are suddenly stolen from him.
  • And then one morning, to his great surprise, he finds a baby girl on his doorstep …

All of these have one thing in common: they talk about an event taking place in time.

✍️ Prepositions of time are very useful when describing such events.

But there are some tricky prepositions that need to be properly explained and studied! A few sample sentences, drawn straight from Silas Marner, will help us do just that.


In English, we use fixed phrases to describe how things happened at a certain time. So whenever we talk about something happening during these times,

🌄 morning

☀️ afternoon

🌇 evening

we will always say and write ‘in the morning’, ‘in the afternoon’, or ‘in the evening’.

For example, George Eliot describes how Silas Marner always plans for his next day’s work every evening: he would prepare

📙 ‘… a new piece of work in his loom early in the morning.’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

Or here, where Eliot describes how Silas is puzzled and wonders how someone could have tried to rob him:

📙 ‘And in the evening, too, he said to himself [he thought within himself], everything was the same as when he had left it.’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

🌒 However, things change if we want to describe something happening during the night. This construction has to be altered, because we never say ‘in the night’. ❌

Instead, it is always ‘at night’. ✔️

Consider this line, again directly from Silas Marner, in which Eliot describes how Silas used to guard his savings (she calls it ‘gold’ in this description):

📙 ‘But at night came his revelry [his moment of great enjoyment]: at night he closed his shutters [wooden coverings over a window], and made fast [closed and locked] his doors, and drew forth [pulled out] his gold.’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

To summarise:

✍️ We always say ‘in the ___’ when we describe something happening in the morning, afternoon, or evening. But we always say ‘at night’ when describing something happening during the night.


📙 ‘The furze bush [a wild bush with yellow flowers that can be found in Britain and Ireland] was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested [caught the attention of] her eyes and thoughts.’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

You have probably used the expressions ‘this afternoon’ or ‘this morning’ or ‘this evening’ before. But do you know that (once again) there is an exception when we want to specify that something happened ‘this night’? 🌒

✍️ We use the word ‘tonight’ instead of ‘this night’. For example, ‘I am going to a concert tonight’, or ‘the moon is so bright tonight’. Or as in George Eliot’s own words, when she wants to describe a small group of friends meeting together in a small dark room:

📙 ‘But the parlour was dark tonight …’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)

Here are a few questions for you: What have you been doing this morning (or this afternoon, or this evening)? What do you expect to do tonight?


Our last tricky preposition of time has to do with what happened in the past.

And guess what: once again what happened during the night 🌒 that is past is different from what happened during the morning, afternoon, or evening that is past!

We use the word ‘yesterday’ as an adjective to describe the past day’s morning, afternoon, or evening:

✏️ ‘I posted a letter yesterday morning.’

✏️ ‘We had lunch together yesterday afternoon.’

✏️ ‘We walked in the park yesterday evening – the sunset was beautiful!’

However, we say ‘last night’ (and never ‘yesterday night’) when describing the night before today:

📙 ‘Had he put his gold somewhere else, by a sudden resolution [decision] last night, and then forgotten it?’

– George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)


After all the exceptions mentioned above, there is one preposition of time that we don’t need to worry about: ‘on [the day]’.

📅 Whenever we refer to a day of the week by name (Monday-Sunday), we use the preposition ‘on’ before it.

📅 And whenever we to the morning/afternoon/evening/night of a day of the week, we also use the preposition ‘on’.

For example:

✏️ ‘Silas went to church on Sundays.’

✏️ ‘He started his work on Monday morning.’

✏️ ‘He heard a strange noise outside his door on Thursday night.’

As you can see, whenever we use the name of one of the days of the week, nothing changes. ✍️ The preposition ‘on’ continues to be used no matter whether we describe the morning, night, or even the weekday by name.

Hopefully our Short Lesson has helped to clarify these tricky and very common prepositions of time! 🕰️

Practice them by constructing sentences that describe

✏️ 1) what you did in the recent past (yesterday morning, yesterday afternoon, yesterday evening, last night), ✏️ 2) what you did/will do at different times today (this morning, this afternoon, this evening, tonight), and ✏️ 3) what you normally do on certain days of the week (Monday-Sunday).

Ultimately, this is the only effective way to get your mind, your tongue and ears accustomed to the natural rhythm of English prepositions of time!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)