Why do we say 'on the bus' but 'in the car'?

Explore the linguistic evolution of prepositions in transportation and the cognitive processing behind them.

Why do we say 'on the bus' but 'in the car'?
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

Have you ever pondered over the use of prepositions when talking about modes of transportation?

It's a language quirk that often goes unnoticed, yet holds an intriguing element.

Let's delve into this anomaly and explore the intriguing reasons behind the distinction.

The Distinction

When discussing transportation, English speakers tend to use 'on the bus' or 'on the train,' while opting for 'in the car.' This variance in prepositions for seemingly similar modes of travel sparks curiosity.

Linguistic Evolution

Linguistic experts attribute the historical context of transportation modes to explain this discrepancy.

Traveling 'on' a mode of transportation typically implies being on an elevated platform or structure, such as a deck or a raised carriage.

Conversely, being 'in' a vehicle suggests being enclosed within its interior.

This historical perspective yields valuable insights into the usage patterns of prepositions in transportation references.

Cognitive Processing of Prepositions

Moreover, the human brain subconsciously associates different prepositions with particular modes of transportation.

This reflects cognitive patterns ingrained through societal usage and linguistic conventions, shedding light on the intricate interplay between language, cognition, and cultural context.


The peculiarity of prepositional usage in transportation references can be attributed to a confluence of historical, logistical, linguistic, and cognitive factors.

This grammatical nuance serves as a testament to the complexities of language and its intricate relationship with human cognition and cultural evolution.