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What is the Difference Between “On Time” and “In Time”?

When should they use “on time” and when should they use “in time” and what is the difference? The difference in spelling and pronunciation is minor but they are used very differently.

David J K Carr
David J K Carr
Book lesson

This is a question that I have often been asked by my students. When should they use “on time,” and when should they use “in time,” and what is the difference? The difference in spelling and pronunciation is minor, but they are used very differently.

“On time” means that there is a specific time established when something is supposed/expected to happen, and it happens at the planned time. For example, if a train is scheduled to arrive at the station at 11.30 am and it actually does arrive at 11.30 am, then we say that the train is “on time.”

Similarly, someone has a job interview scheduled for 3.00 pm, and they arrive at 2.55 pm, and the interview starts at 3.00 pm as planned. Then we say that that person was “on time” for the interview and the interview started “on time.”

We use the adjective “punctual” to describe someone who is always on time for any meetings or other obligations.

However, we use the phrase “in time” when we want to describe something that happened before it was too late. Maybe something bad would then happen.

Some examples:

“Tom arrived at the airport just in time to catch his flight”. If Tom arrived any later, he would have missed his flight.
“Jane did not get her dream job because she did not submit the application in time”.

So, “in time” is used whenever there is a deadline for something. If you miss that deadline then we say that you were “out of time”.

The phrase “in the nick of time”

This is a common phrase in English, and it is used to describe a situation in which you meet a deadline or prevent something bad from happening with very little time to spare.

Example:

I had to submit my assignment by 1.00 pm at the latest and I managed to email it to my tutor at 12.58 pm, just in the nick of time.
Tom was very badly injured when he crashed his motorbike. The paramedics arrived in the nick of time to save his life.

So, you can see how changing one letter in the preposition from “on” to “in” gives us a completely different meaning.

Some more examples:

Back to the Future (1985)
The Post (2017)
The Majestic (2001)
In the Loop (2009)
EnglishWhich is correct

David J K Carr

I'm a British native and worked as a lawyer in London for 30 years. I'm also a TEFL-certified English teacher and have been teaching students all over the world for 3 years.

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