Q: I’ve lived ON Long Island all my life. A few weeks ago, a newscaster said an incident happened IN Long Island. One lives ON an island, not IN one. Simple, right? Not so! I retired two years ago after working IN Manhattan, but Manhattan is an island! Queens and Brooklyn are both ON Long Island, but people live IN them. However, people live ON Staten Island. What do you make of all this?
A: Where prepositions are used in geographical references, local usage is correct usage.
A good example is the use of “up” and “down” in England, where they don’t mean north and south, as they would to most Americans. We wrote a posting last year that touched on this issue.
But where islands are concerned, the convention is well established. The usual preposition is “on”—unless, of course, the island is a country in itself.
Karl Gunnar Lindkvist discusses this issue in his book Studies on the Local Sense of the Prepositions In, At, On, and To in Modern English (1950):
“In American English on is the common preposition with islands, except when denoting countries, and at least partially owing to influence from that quarter, on is now doubtless on the increase in Britain with these complements.”
We have never heard the phrase “in Long Island,” and can only assume the reporter you heard was new to the job and to the New York area.
In the US, and indeed in most British usage these days, the preposition “on” is used with the names of individual islands.
For example, we say “on Shelter Island,” “on Roosevelt Island,” “on Fire Island,” “on Block Island,” and so on. Similarly, the British say “on the Isle of Wight,” “on the Isle of Man,” and so on.
But we use “in” with the names of island groups: “in the Virgin Islands,” “in the Solomon Islands,” “in the British Isles,” “in the Philippines,” “in the Aran Islands,” “in the Hebrides.”
And we also use “in” with the names of towns, neighborhoods, and other entities that are located on islands: “He has a cottage in Sconset, on Nantucket” … “They live in Suffolk County, on Long Island” … “The hotel is in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.”
This last point is relevant to your question about why we use “in” with the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens (“He lives in Queens and works in Manhattan”).
In the case of Manhattan we use “in” because we’re thinking of the borough rather than the island it’s named for. As for Brooklyn and Queens, they aren’t islands in themselves anyway—only large chunks of an island.
Staten Island is a special case. Yes, it’s a borough like Brooklyn and Manhattan, but we DO think of it as an island (probably because the word is right there in the name).
So most of us say “on Staten Island.” But for parts of Staten Island, we use “in.” Example: “She lives in Richmondtown, on Staten Island.”
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