Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #222 (Part 1): ‘At Home, In Days Gone By’ – 9 prepositions that express time

📙 ‘Miss Matty and I quietly decided that we would have a previous engagement at home: it was the evening on which Miss Matty usually made candle-lighters of all the notes and letters of the week; for on Mondays her accounts were always made straight— not a penny owing from the week before; so, by a natural arrangement, making candle-lighters fell upon a Tuesday evening, and gave us a legitimate excuse for declining Mrs Jamieson’s invitation.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (1853)

🕰️ This passage is from one of my perennial favourites (favourites that last or exist for a long or apparently infinite time; enduring or continually recurring)! I reread it nearly every year around this time, enjoying its stories about a community of poor but genteel women living in a small English village around the 1820s. The book describes, in a humorous and tender way, how their lively friendships help them make the best of difficult times. I highly recommend it, especially if you can find Clare Wille’s excellently narrated audible version.

The story of Cranford is retold through the eyes of a younger woman called Mary Smith who regularly visits the ladies of Cranford. The generational difference between Mary and her older friends leads to many conversations between them about ‘the old times’, with plenty of time prepositions scattered throughout … which in turn has inspired me to write today’s Lesson for you.

🕯️ In fact, some of the most common mistakes that learners of English make are connected with prepositions.

In today’s Lesson we are going to consider 9 important prepositions of time that we use in everyday English.

If you have been following our Lessons for a while, you will have noticed that on Mondays we cover more grammatical topics over 2 parts – so when you have finished this Part 1 don’t forget to read the rest of the Lesson here!


📝 #1 AT

This is used to express

  • precise time: ‘at 5 o’clock’, ‘at sunrise’, ‘at noon’
  • phrases that include the words ‘time’ and ‘moment’: ‘at that time’, ‘at the moment’
  • special times of the year: ‘at Christmas’, ‘at Easter’

It is also used in fixed expressions such as ‘at night’ and ‘at the weekend’ (UK English 🇬🇧 – American English speakers prefer ‘on the weekend’ 🇺🇲).

Here is one such example from Gaskell’s novella:

📙 ‘Mrs Forrester … borrowed a boy from one of the neighbouring cottages and promised his parents a hundredweight of coals at Christmas, and his supper every evening, for the loan of him at nights.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford


📝 #2 ON / UPON

This is used to talk about

  • days and dates: ‘on Thursday’, ‘on the 1st of December’
  • phrases that include the words ‘day’ or ‘date’: ‘on New Year’s Day’, ‘on that date’

📙 ‘So she ended her letter; but in a P.S. she added, she thought she might as well tell me what was the peculiar attraction to Cranford just now; Signor Brunoni was going to exhibit his wonderful magic in the Cranford Assembly Rooms on Wednesday and Friday evening in the following week.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

✍️ Observe how sometimes we can rephrase a noun and the preposition it uses as follows: ‘the evening on which’, ‘the day in which’, etc. You can see this in Elizabeth Gaskell’s words here:

📙 ‘Miss Matty and I quietly decided that we would have a previous engagement at home: it was the evening on which Miss Matty usually made candle-lighters of all the notes and letters of the week; for on Mondays her accounts were always made straight— not a penny owing from the week before; so, by a natural arrangement, making candle-lighters fell upon a Tuesday evening, and gave us a legitimate excuse for declining Mrs Jamieson’s invitation.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (emphases mine)


📝 #3 IN

We use this to speak of

  • (a specific number of) days, months, seasons, and years: ‘in April’, ‘in spring’, ‘in 1805’

✍️ NOTE: Be careful to understand the difference between expressions that use ‘in’ or ‘within’ with a number of days. For example:

  • ‘I will travel in 3 days’ means ‘I will travel once 3 days are over
  • ‘They expect an answer within 7 days’ means ‘They expect an answer between now and 7 days from now

📙 ‘And I got as servant to an invalid lady, who grew quite fond of my baby aboard-ship; and, in two years’ time, Sam earned his discharge, and came home to me, and to our child.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (emphasis mine)

And here is another example from Cranford, taken from what might be the most exciting chapter in the whole book: 😊

📙 ‘Martha was beginning to go about again, and I had already fixed a limit, not very far distant, to my visit, when one afternoon, as I was sitting in the shop-parlour with Miss Matty— I remember the weather was colder now than it had been in May, three weeks before, and we had a fire and kept the door fully closed— we saw a gentleman go slowly past the window, and then stand opposite to the door, as if looking out for the name which we had so carefully hidden.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (emphasis mine)

✍️ NOTE the different meanings these two expressions have:

  • on time’ means ‘at the arranged time’. For example, a professor might say to their students, ‘Make sure you submit your assignments on time if you do not want to be penalised.’ They mean, ‘make sure that you submit your assignments at the arranged time …’
  • in time’ means ‘almost exactly at the right time’ or ‘not too late’. For example we could say, ‘I arrived in time for my appointment.’ This simply means, ‘I arrived almost exactly at the right time/not too late for my appointment.’


📝 #4 FOR

This describes:

  • a length of time: ‘for 3 hours’, ‘for 2 days’

Consider these passages from Gaskell’s book:

📙 ‘Soon after Miss Mary Hoggins married Mr Fitz-Adam, she disappeared from the neighbourhood for many years.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Miss Matty and Miss Pole had been visitors on this occasion for many years, and now they gallantly determined to nail their colours to the mast, and to go through Darkness Lane rather than fail in loyalty to their friend.

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (emphasis mine)

NOTE: ⚠️ A very common mistake that students make is to use ‘since’ where they should use ‘for’: e.g., ‘I have been waiting for you since 10 minutes’ (wrong❗). The difference between ‘for’ and ‘since’ is as follows:

  • for’ refers to a duration or period of time
  • since’ refers to time from a point in time in the past until now

So to return to our example, it should be: ‘I have been waiting for you for 10 minutes’. In other words, the emphasis is on the duration, the length of time rather than when the time started.

We will consider 5 more prepositions of time in Part 2 of our Lessonwhile, during, until, by, sinceso check it out!