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In Time vs. On Time: Choosing the Right Preposition for Time

The words “on” and “in” are prepositions, and we use them before a noun or pronoun. When we use them in combination with the noun “time,” these words form phrases with very different meanings. Knowing when and how to use each phrase in the proper context takes time to learn.

“On time” means meeting a deadline and not being late. “In time” also means not being late, but it often implies just barely meeting the deadline or being slightly early. “In time” and “on time” are idioms, and using “on time” or “in time” depends on the message you are trying to convey.

It is easy to confuse these two phrases, and many often use them interchangeably in everyday speech. Continue reading to learn how and when to use each phrase and improve your communication skills. You may even learn a few fun time-related colloquial phrases along the way.

“In Time” vs.“On Time”

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Using “in time” and “on time” in the same sentence may cause confusion. However, it’s possible to not be “on time” but still “in time” and vice versa.

For instance, if the employee arrives at work at 8:00 am, we would say he arrived “on time.” If the employee had arrived 10 minutes before 8:00 am, we could say that he arrived “in time” to take a detour and buy a newspaper before clocking in for work.

Examples using “in time” and “on time” in the same sentence:

The bus was not on time, but I caught a cab and arrived in time for my interview. 

He arrived in time for the opera, even though the train did not leave on time.

Handing in my report on time allowed me to leave in time to attend my daughter’s recital.

Are They Interchangeable?

“In time” and “on time,” as we discussed above, have different meanings and are not interchangeable. For instance, they are both appropriate to use in identical sentences, but the meaning of the sentence changes. 

In TimeOn Time
There has been an accident on the highway, and we will not get to Texas in time.There has been an accident on the highway, and we will not get to Texas on time.
If they submit the draft plan in time, we will complete the project before the official opening.If they submit the draft on time, we will complete the project before the official opening.

What Does the Phrase “On Time” Mean?

The phrase “on time” indicates the completion of an obligation or duty by the given deadline. If something is “on time,” it happens either before or exactly at the scheduled time. Below, we’ve listed several applications and examples.

Work Schedules:

John is never on time for work; he is always late.

Employees must arrive on time or risk losing sick day hours.

Bus and Train Timetables:

Sally set the alarm so that she could be at the bus stop on time.

The 905 Dallas flight left on time.

Projects and Assignments:

My colleagues and I handed in our pitch on time for Tuesday’s meeting. 

The exercise class began on time.

Our Real estate agent arrived on time to show us the house we were interested in.

Appointments and Meetings:

I handed in my exam project on time, and the score will count towards my annual grade.

The builders completed the project on time for the official opening of the library.

Payment Due Dates:

Luckily, I got paid on time, and my debit orders didn’t bounce. 

I paid back my five-year car loan on time.

Using the Adjective On-Time

An alternative form of this phrase is the hyphenated “on-time”. This phrase has exactly the same meaning, only it functions as an adjective. 

The on-time performance, customer service, and sales delivery are all criteria for measuring success. 

We provide a discount for those who make a minimum of eight on-time loan repayments. 

What Is the Meaning of the Phrase “In Time?” 

“In” is a preposition we use to describe the time when an event takes place. When we use “in” within the phrase “In time,” it has three possible meanings. The exact meaning of the phrase becomes clear within the context of the sentence.

In Rhythm

“In time” can mean keeping tempo or being in rhythm with someone. This could be a literal interpretation, for example, when playing music or dancing with others.

If the user does not apply it literally, it means that someone is not keeping sync with others in a specific action. 

Paul kept in time with the rest of the band, and his drumming impressed the audience. 

The skydive maneuver worked perfectly because the skydivers exited the plane in time. 

Eventually

Another meaning of the phrase “in time” has to do with the passing of time and something happening eventually. 

You don’t understand now, but, in time, you’ll know why this is the best thing for you. 

Early Enough

The final meaning of the phrase “In time,” and the one this article will focus on, is doing something before an event begins or before a deadline. This means that someone performs an action with time to spare; it is not too late nor exactly on time (source).

We ate dinner at a restaurant nearby and arrived at the theater in time for the concert, which began 10 minutes later.

I arrived home in time to have a shower before the family Thanksgiving dinner began. 

Here are some further examples you’re likely to come across.

Work Schedules:

I arrived at work in time to have a quick chat with the security guard before clocking in. 

He got to the store in time to help open up and get ready for the first customers.

Bus and Train Timetables:

We arrived in time to buy a coffee before we caught the 9:30 train.

The taxi got us to the airport in time for our flight, even though there was a traffic jam.

Appointments and Meetings:

She finished her 8:30 meeting in time to get to her 8:45 appointment.  

I got to the dentist in time for my six-month checkup, despite waking up late.

Payment Due Dates:

He canceled his Netflix subscription in time to avoid the next payment. 

I finished paying off my layaway in time to qualify for the 15% discount.

What Are Prepositions of Time? 

Prepositions are one of the eight parts of speech in the English language, indicating a location, time, direction, or spatial relationship (source). The prepositions we most often use in relation to time are “in,” “on,” and “at.” 

“On” refers to a specific day or date. For example, “My birthday is on Friday.” “In,” on the other hand, refers to a period of time and does not specify an exact time.

For example, “I will see you in the next week.” This arrangement does not specify which day or time. 

Below are some examples of how we use these prepositions in relation to time. 

InOnAt 
In the morningOn Saturday nightAt sunrise
In the 60s On Christmas At four o’clock 
In the past On the 28th of February At lunchtime 
In the holidays On my birthdayAt the moment 

Idioms for “In Time” and “On Time”

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“On time” and “in time” are idioms, and there are many other idioms to use when speaking about deadlines, due dates, and expected arrival times. 

Idioms don’t have a literal meaning, so it is advisable to familiarize yourself with the gist of what each one means before using them to avoid misunderstandings.

The table below illustrates commonly used idioms related to time.

Idiom Definition Example 
Whale of a timeTo do something fun and have a great time doing it. My family and I went camping last weekend on the coast. I had a whale of a time! 
Time after timeTo do something repeatedly. Time after time, Jimmy is the last child to arrive at school and the last child to walk into an assembly.
Once in a blue moonSomething that hardly ever occurs. I took the kids and my wife to a football game on Thursday night, which only happens once in a blue moon.
In the blink of an eyeThe appearance of time moving too fast.In the blink of an eye, I was walking my little girl down the aisle; where had the years gone? 
Better late than neverCompleting something or arriving later than the agreed time is better than doing nothing. Samuel arrived late and missed the beginning of the play, but better late than never! 

Idioms That Mean “On Time” and “In Time”

The above idioms, while time-related, do not refer to specific deadlines. However, there are phrases that have the same meaning as either “on time” or “in time.” 

“Just in Time”

The phrase “just in time” is an idiom we use when something happens at the last possible moment, and there is no extra time to do anything else or risk being late. You can use this phrase rather than “in time.”

Example sentences: 

I got to the train station just in time and boarded my train as it was leaving the station.

Ruth handed in her University application just in time to meet the deadline.

Despite the traffic jam, we arrived just in time to see the movie.

“In the Nick of Time”

The phrase “in the nick of time” is an idiom similar in meaning to “in time” and is usable in its place. The phrase dates back to the mid-1600s, when “nick” described a critical moment in time. 

Today we use the phrase “in the nick of time,” meaning meeting a deadline at the exact time it’s due. 

Example sentences:

He scored a goal in the nick of time, just as the referee blew the final whistle. 

It’s a good thing the ambulance arrived in the nick of time; any later would have been too late to save him.

The store closed at 6:00 pm, and I got there in the nick of time to buy milk for the morning.

“On the Dot”

“On the dot” refers to completing something or arriving at the exact time specified, not a moment earlier or later. The meaning of “on the dot” refers to the dots found on the face of a watch or on a clock that we use traditionally to mark time (source).

The phrase “on the dot” may have originated from the phrase “to a dot” from the 1700s, meaning “exactly.” Today, “on the dot” has replaced “to a dot.”

Example sentences:

I arrived at work at 8:00 am on the dot.

The train left at 1:30 pm on the dot. 

Tim drops his kids off at school at eight o’clock on the dot every morning.

“In Good Time”

“In good time” is an idiom synonymous with “in time.” Typically “in good time” and “in time” mean that you meet a deadline with lots of time to spare. 

In Good TimeIn Time
My friends and I arrived at the airport in good time to catch our connecting flight.My friends and I arrived at the airport in time to catch our connecting flight.
She returned my book in good time for me to use it for my school project.She returned my book in time for me to use it for my school project.
I arrived at my class in good time to have a snack.I arrived at my class in time to have a snack.

However, we can also use “in good time” and “in time” to speak about something happening sometime in the future.

In Good TimeIn Time
In good time, you will come to realize the value of saving money.In time, you will come to realize the value of saving money.
I understand that you are feeling betrayed, but you will understand my decision in good time.I understand that you are feeling betrayed, but you will understand my decision in time.
Cheer up; you will find someone who cares about you in good time.Cheer up; you will find someone who cares about you in time.

“In No Time at All”

The phrase “in no time at all” is another popular idiom we use when speaking about time. You can use this phrase to describe when something happens in a short space of time. It is very similar to the idiom, “in no time” (source). 

When we remove the “at all” from the phrase “in no time at all,” the meaning and use do not change. The chart below compares both phrases side by side.

In no time at allIn no time
He whipped up an apple pie for tea in no time at all.He whipped up an apple pie for tea in no time.
The test was so easy, I was done with it in no time at all.The test was so easy, I was done with it in no time.
In no time at all, you’ll be taller than me, my dearIn no time at all, you’ll be taller than me, my dear.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Now that we have discussed the idioms “in time” and “on time” as well as a few others, you may enjoy our article entitled, “Doing Well or Doing Good?

Final Thoughts 

Choosing whether to use “in time” vs. “on time” depends on the message you are trying to convey.

If there is time to spare, then “in time” is the correct phrase to use. If something happened at the exact time it should have and was not early or late, then “on time” is typically the phrase you’ll want to use. 

Practice makes perfect, and mastering these phrases or idioms will enable you to use the one that communicates your intended meaning correctly. Once you are comfortable using these phrases, go ahead, try some of the variations, and spice up your language.