We all, sometimes begrudgingly, have to go to work or school each day. But when someone asks where you are, should you respond with “I am at work” or “I am in work?”
The correct phrase is “I am at work,” not “I am in work.” While both “at” and “in” are spacial prepositions, each has nuances in meaning. “In” refers to an enclosed or surrounding area. Conversely, “at” refers to a particular point, place, or general location, including large spaces with multiple rooms.
Below, you’ll learn how to use “at work” correctly in the proper contexts and about the differences between prepositions “in” and “at.”
What Does “At Work” Mean?
“At work” most often means “at the place where you work” or that you are in the process of doing something (source). Sometimes, you may hear people use this phrase to reference a person or idea influencing the outcome of some event.
When you say that you are “at work,” you generally intend to communicate that you are doing your job or that you are engaged in work at a particular location, like your workplace (source). In the following statement, you emphasize that you are at a specific place where you should not talk on the phone.
- I’m at work right now, so I cannot talk.
You may also use “at work” to show that you or someone else is in the process of doing something or accomplishing a particular task. In the following example, you are indicating that the kids are in the process of working on something.
- The kids are hard at work on their science projects.
But you can also use this phrase to show that a force or process is “at work” in something. This third use of “at work” means some force, process, or person behind an outcome or event.
- We have to remember the social influences at work behind these political decisions.
So, there are slight nuances in the meaning and use of “at work.” Next, we’ll talk more about how, when, and in what context you can use this phrase in writing and speaking.
How Do You Use “At Work”?
You can use the prepositional phrase “at work” as part of a complete sentence to show that you are engaged in a task or activity at a particular location or that some other force or influence is behind an outcome. The preposition “at” indicates a time or place, but you can also use it to refer to activity.
When we break down the phrase “at work,” we have to consider the meaning of the preposition “at” and the noun and verb definitions of “work.”
Remember that a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. So, for example, if you use the phrase “at work” as a prepositional phrase, you are referring to a place or an idea, such as your workplace.
When you use the word “work” as a verb, you indicate that someone is engaged in a task or “at work” on an activity. But, if you use the word “work” as a verb, you would more commonly do so with an -ing ending.
For example, you can say, “They are working on the project.” You’ll hear this usage more often in this context. But, it’s also correct to say, “They were at work on the project.” Still, the latter is less common.
The use of the phrase concerning a force or influence isn’t very different, grammatically speaking. The difference is that rather than a person being “at work” on a task, sometimes we can use this phrase to show that either a person or an intangible idea is “at work” behind the scenes.
Nonetheless, the most common time or event you’ll use “at work” is when you are simply talking about where you are – at a physical space or place where you are working.
When Can You Use “At Work”?
You can use “at work” whenever you wish to communicate that you or someone else is engaged in work or at their place of employment. You can also use the phrase to show that some force is pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Remember that the preposition “at” can refer to where somebody is in space or the situation something or someone is in, what somebody is doing, or what is happening at that moment (source).
“At” communicates time or location, which is why you use “at” with “work” to share where you are in space. In this sense, the word “work” is a noun, though it can also be a verb, as we’ve mentioned above.
For example, when you are saying you are “working” or when you want to communicate that you or someone else is “at work” on a particular project or process, you are using “work” as a verb.
Below are three examples showing you how you can use this phrase with the nuances in meaning we’ve discussed above.
- My sister is at work today until 4:00 p.m.
- She was hard at work on her portrait, hoping to win the art contest.
- The evil forces at work made escape nearly impossible.
You’ll notice that with the third example, we’re referring to an intangible idea (forces) when using “at work.” This is a common phrase in literature, especially in fantasy or stories with a magical or supernatural twist.
Additionally, it is common to use the term when talking about more prominent organizations, political or social forces, religious beliefs, and anything spiritual or unseen in nature.
In What Context Can You Use “At Work”
The context in which you will most often use “at work” is to answer another’s question about where you or someone else is. Other settings include when you want to converse about what someone is doing or, as we’ve stated, an external force being “at work” behind the scenes.
These three contexts are relatively straightforward, but remember that you will not hear “at work” when someone is telling you what they are doing too often – in this case, you’ll probably hear and use “working” instead.
- I am at work until four today.
- I am working until four today.
Still, it’s not incorrect to say, “She’s been at work on that project for hours,” though again, you’ll hear or say, “She’s been working on that project for hours” more often.
The most frequent context in which you’ll use the phrase is in conversation about you or someone else’s location. However, you can also use it when communicating that you are in the process of doing work or when you are sharing that something is impacting what we see behind the scenes.
Next, we’ll go through a few more examples for each context.
Using “At Work” in a Full Sentence
Remember that “at work” is a prepositional phrase, so you’ll use it as part of a complete sentence unless you are simply answering a question in casual conversation about your whereabouts.
As a prepositional phrase, “at work” appears wherever you can add adverbial or adjectival information.
Below are more sample sentences using “at work” correctly.
- She will be at work until 10:00 p.m.
- I’m at work, mom. I cannot talk on the phone right now.
- He was at work on the housing project, the deadline being right around the corner.
- The children were hard at work building a block tower together.
- There are often political forces at work, even when politics shouldn’t matter.
- Supernatural forces were at work in the novel, and the characters were often fearful.
You can also use “at work” as a minor sentence in response to a question about someone or something’s whereabouts. However, using this prepositional phrase independently outside of a direct-answer context will not make sense.
- “Where is Denise?” “At work.”
- “Where did Gerald leave his wallet?” “At work.”
When Not to Use “At Work”
You should not use “at work” as a stand-alone sentence in writing since it is not a grammatically complete sentence. Remember, too, that you’ll always say “at work,” not “in work.”
There are not many situations where you can’t use this phrase. The main thing to remember is that you are using the correct preposition, “at,” not the preposition “in.”
And, of course, you should only use the phrase if you are sure of someone’s whereabouts; otherwise, you would want to use a more ambiguous term or simply state that you are not sure if a person is or is not at work.
Also, we did mention that you can use the phrase to say that someone is engaged in an activity, but it is more common to use the -ing ending with the verb “work” instead. It’s more natural to say, “I’m working on my homework,” versus, “I’m at work on my homework.”
What Can You Use Instead of “At Work”?
You can use other words to communicate a similar idea as the prepositional phrase “at work.” Remember, however, that some of these are not prepositional phrases but single words that may communicate a slightly different meaning or connotation, so always check the definition to be sure a word is directly synonymous.
Below is a list of alternate options for the phrase “at work.”
- in process
- at force
- operate or operating
- at a place of employment
- on the job
A prepositional phrase is a multi-word phrase that contains a preposition and a noun, pronoun, or word group that act as a noun unit following the preposition (source). The noun or noun phrase following a preposition is called the object of the preposition.
There are a few different purposes for prepositional phrases, including showing when something happens, where, why, or how. You’ll also find that prepositional phrases show “which one” and “what kind.”
It is impossible to remember all prepositions and prepositional phrases, but there are some very common prepositions, including both “at” and “in,” which are each prepositions of place. This is why many confuse which preposition to choose when communicating location, such as a workplace.
The preposition alone connects the noun or noun phrase to some other part of your sentence (source). Adding the object (or noun) makes a single preposition a prepositional phrase.
There’s no specific rule to memorize to be sure you are using the correct preposition since the meanings are sometimes quite similar, such as with “at” and “in.”
Remember that if you use the preposition “in” as part of your prepositional phrase, you show that something or someone is inside, surrounded, or encircled.
So, you might say, “I’m in my office right now,” to show you are “inside” the four walls of your office. So, the preposition would be “in” and the prepositional phrase, “in my office.” The noun object in this preposition is “office.”
The preposition “at” indicates general location, such as “I’m at work today.” Here, the preposition “at” shows your location; similarly, the object here is the noun “work,” a place.
If you’d like to understand more about prepositional phrases and how to use them correctly in English, take a look at this article with a unique phrase, Is It Correct to Say “As Per Our Conversation”?
Multiple Prepositional Phrases
Combining these two sentences will have a complex sentence with two prepositional phrases: “I’m in my office at work.” Taken together, “in” shows which room you are inside “at” your general location – your place of work.
Prepositions and prepositional phrases allow you to add more detail to your sentences. As you learn more, you’ll find it easier to know which preposition is the correct one to use.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Another great article about a prepositional phrase we use idiomatically may also be helpful to you: Is It Correct to Say “Between You and Me”?
“At work” is a common phrase and one you will find yourself frequently using to tell someone your whereabouts or to communicate that someone else is at their place of work.
Remember that the correct preposition to use is “at” not “in.” And while there are a few ways to use this phrase, showing your location is the most common one.