What do you do for a living? Where do you work? What company are you with? Americans love to talk about careers, and these are all questions you will eventually face. To respond appropriately, you need to understand the difference between “work at,” “work in,” and “work for.”
Use “work in” to explain your job’s physical location, industry, or department. “Work for” refers to your employer company. “Work at” is interchangeable with “work in” or “work for,” but “work in” and “work for” cannot take each other’s place.
Don’t go anywhere – we’ll further clarify these prepositional phrases’ meanings, differences, and specific uses throughout this article.
What Does “Work At” Mean?
“Work at” is a prepositional phrase combining the verb “work” and the preposition “at.” The term indicates that the subject works within a specific workplace or company, such as “I work at a hospital.” Another use of this phrase is to say you’re trying to improve your skill at something, as in “I’m working at writing with clarity.”
“Work at” shares meanings with both “work in” and “work for.” This is thanks to the preposition “at,” which means something is present within something else or indicates a goal (source).
The first definition for “at” – the presence of something within something else – also applies to the preposition “in” (source). This gives both “work at” and “work in” shared uses. Notice how the following two sentences mean the same thing:
- I work at a hospital.
- I work in a hospital.
The second definition of “at” – the indication of a goal – is also shared with another preposition: “for” (source). Due to the shared meanings between the two prepositions, “work at” can take the place of “work for.” Look at these two sentences to see this in action.
- I work at Microsoft.
- I work for Microsoft.
“Work at” is interchangeable with “work in” and “work for,” but remember that “work in” is not a valid substitute for “work for” and vice versa. This is because “in” and “for” have different meanings, thus making them two completely different prepositional phrases.
The other sense for “work at” takes a different angle because of the verb “work.” When talking about improving at something, “work at” uses “work” with the basic meaning of making an effort. When using “work at” in this way, you could also say “making an effort at.”
- I’m making an effort at showing up on time more often.
How Do You Use “Work At”?
As a prepositional phrase, “work at” follows the subject and modifies the object of the sentence. You can use it with nouns or pronouns, and since “work” is a verb, it changes form depending on which tense and point of view you use.
On the other hand, “at” remains the same across all three tenses and points of view. When you use it to talk about getting better at something, “work” becomes the present participle, “working.”
The following examples show the different parts of sentences using “work at.” Even though “work” and “at” are different parts of speech, they still comprise the phrase “work at.”
- I work at a school.
- I work at Google.
In the table below, “work at” is used in all three tenses and points of view.
|Past Tense||Present Tense||Future Tense|
|First Person||I worked at the library.||I work at the library.||I will work at the library.|
|Second Person||You worked at the library.||You work at the library.||You will work at the library.|
|Third Person||Jack worked at the library.||Jack works at the library.||Jack will work at the library.|
When talking about improving at something, you will still place “work at” after the subject but follow it with another verb before the sentence object. Also, you can use an adverb or adjective to specify how the subject is trying to improve at the action.
- I’m working at sewing better.
Here, “better” is the adverb we use to show the subject’s attempt at improving their “sewing.”
- I’m working at sewing tighter seams.
In this example, “tighter” is the adjective we use to show how the subject wants to improve their sewing. The “seams” are the objects of the sentence through which the subject practices “sewing.”
Do You Work At or For a Company?
Whether you “work at a company” or “work for a company” depends on the specific meaning you want to impart. “Work at a company” refers to the physical location from which the “company” operates or to the fact that the “company employs you.” To “work for a company” only means the “company employs you.”
If you want to state the physical location of where you work, use “work at” and be specific. For the location, “I work at Walmart” is useless to tell someone unless you include relevant details such as street names or other landmarks.
If you only want to state your employer without referencing their physical location, both “work at” and “work for” are correct. “I work for Walmart” means Walmart employs you, but it does not describe the specific location of “Walmart.”
Do You Say At or With a Company?
“Work with a company” is less definite than “work at a company.” “Work with” is a statement of collaboration and does not indicate employment status, but “work at” does. The phrase you should use depends on the meaning you want to portray.
You can say, “I work with Google,” to tell someone that you work alongside “Google,” but this doesn’t mean you’re an employee of “Google.” On the other hand, “I work at Google” is a clear statement that “Google” is your place of work.
When Can You Use “Work At”?
You can use “work at” when discussing your employer and workplace. Any conversation or writing about your career is a fitting place to use this prepositional phrase. You can also use “work at” when talking about self-improvement.
Because the two meanings of “work at” are about careers and self-improvement, these are appropriate times to use the phrase. Otherwise, “work at” will not make sense.
- I work at the ranch near Hollister.
- Tom worked at the 360 kick for months before he got it right.
In What Context Can You Use “Work At”?
In casual conversations, we often discuss our jobs or our attempts to improve ourselves. “Work at” is generally appropriate, light discussions where the participants give details of their life, such as old friends catching up or new acquaintances learning about one another.
Don’t use “work at” in serious conversations or discussions about specific topics. Save this phrase for casual conversations between friends or new acquaintances, such as at a group social event.
Current friends usually know job details about one another, so for the meaning relating to one’s job, discussions relevant to “work at” don’t take place between people who see each other often.
On the other hand, improving at something is a good topic for any casual conversation between friends or new acquaintances. People set new goals for themselves all the time, which makes for a great conversation piece because it shows self-awareness and initiative.
Using “Work At” in a Full Sentence
There are many variations of sentences using “work at.” Remember, the subject must be a pronoun, and the object must be your workplace or employer. However, many different combinations of pronouns and employers are available to use in a complete sentence. Pay attention to the various forms of “work.”
Here are examples of “work at” to discuss your job.
- I work at Mr. Smith’s house.
- I worked at a laundromat.
- Susan works at the local supermarket.
- You will work at McDonald’s tomorrow.
The following examples use “work at” in their other meaning, which is to try to get better at something.
- I’m working at baking softer bread.
- Josh is working at getting a raise.
When Not to Use “Work At”
“Work for” and “work in” have specific uses for which “work at” is not correct. “Work in” sometimes describes one’s particular field or department, and “work for” can say you work for a particular person. “Work at” is not correct for these uses. Also, “work at” isn’t proper when talking about animals or plants.
“Work in” has the capability of describing your department or field, as in “I work in sales” or “I work in the medical field.” Don’t say, “I work at sales” or “I work at the medical field.”
So far, we have used a pronoun for the subject in all previous examples because “work” is an action only taken by a person. Animals sometimes “work” in nature but not in the context of careers and employers. That role is specific to people, so when using “work at,” the sentence’s subject must be a person.
On the other hand, the object of the sentence containing “work at” cannot be something specific such as a department or a person. It is incorrect to say, “I am at Mr. Smith” or “I am at the medical field,” and it’s also incorrect to use “work at” in either of these instances.
What Can You Use Instead of “Work At”?
For specific uses, “work in,” “work for,” and “work with” are synonymous with “work at.” We’ve walked through the scenarios where you can use these instead of “work at.” “Work near,” “work by,” “contracted by,” “employed by,” and “work toward” are also correct in specific instances.
“Work at” is sometimes used when you want to say you’re trying to improve at something. “Work toward” is a good substitute for this use, but we use the verb “work” as a present participle in this instance. The following examples show how this works:
- I’m working at being a better father.
- I’m working toward being a better father.
You can use “work at” to describe the general location of your workplace, as in “I work at 12th and Main.” “Work by” and “work near” can replace “work at” when we use it this way. “I work by 12th and Main” and “I work near 12th and Main” are both correct.
However, you cannot use these when describing the specific location of your workplace since they only indicate close proximity.
“Employed by” is a good substitute for “work at” when talking about your employer. “I’m employed by Microsoft” means the same as “I work at Microsoft.”
If you’re working under a contract, you can also say, “I’m contracted by Microsoft,” but this phrase is only proper if you are a contractor. Typically, contractors are temporary workers and don’t fill out tax forms or receive salaried pay.
We’ve touched on prepositional phrases; “work at” is one of these. Prepositional phrases are word combinations containing a preposition and a noun or noun phrase. When we use a preposition with a noun, the phrase begins with the preposition and ends with the noun (source).
Take a look at these prepositional phrases:
- School starts on Monday.
- Look in the drawer next to the stove.
- My pencil fell under the desk.
Read our article In the Website or on the Website: Using the Right Preposition to learn more about prepositions.
“Work at” also fits the description of a prepositional verb. Prepositional verbs are a combination of a verb and a preposition. They’re similar to prepositional phrases, except that the verb comes before the preposition, and an object must always follow the preposition (source).
Here are a few common prepositional verbs:
- The boy takes after his father.
- I don’t approve of your new friends.
- You can count on me to get the job done.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To see another prepositional verb, head over to Focus in or Focus on: Meaning, Grammar, and Correct Usage.
What do you do for a living? Where do you work? What company are you with? Don’t fret if you don’t know how to answer these questions. With our tips on using “work at,” “work for,” and “work in,” you’ll have the correct response ready if you find yourself in a discussion about work.