How To Differentiate The Russian Prepositions в And на

One of the many (seemingly neverending) details about Russian that can be confusing to a native English speaker is understanding the choice of prepositions in Russian. But once again, you'll find that the concept is actually quite easy once you learn to think like a Russian!

Unlike English, where we have several prepositions to make distinctions about locations, Russian primarily uses only two. And it's often confusing, and seemingly arbitrary, when you have to choose between в and на.

Sure, it's easy to understand that you use на for "on", and в for "in", but the trouble comes when you want to say "at" or "to", for which there is no Russian equivalent, for which there is. (Well, there is a "to" for people, but not for places.) So, if I am at the market, do I say на рынке or в рынке? If I am going to the store, do I say на магазин or в магазин?

You won't find this in any books

I tried every source I could get my hands on when learning Russian — Learn in your Car, Pimsleur, Teach Yourself, Rosetta Stone, Living Language, and several lesser known sources, even including the Russian grammar books that were given to students in the Soviet Union — and yet I never saw this concept properly explained anywhere.

Even the best resources I've seen simply show you lists of places and suggest that you memorize them, or just "get used to saying it" this way, but I don't accept that. Worse still, this is one of those language concepts that native Russian speakers all seem to understand intuitively, but which no one seems capable of describing as a rule.

But I've discovered that there is, in fact, a rule!

It became clear to me when reading about Ukraine. The word Ukraine (Украина) means borderland, and it is indeed the borderland between Russia and Europe.
I noticed that when reading Soviet-era text about things in Ukraine, it is written as на Украике, whereas in post-Soviet text it is в Украине.

A similar distinction exists in English, where it used to be known as "the Ukraine", but it is now known as just Ukraine. This is the clue that helped me to figure it all out. The Soviets considered Ukraine to be a region, but today it is a separate country.

You see, you use в when you are "at" or going "to" an actual place — when the location you are describing actually exists, such as a city, a village, a building; and you use на when you are "at" or going "to" a conceptual place — when the location you are describing is a concept, a grouping, a region.

So with that distinction in mind, things start to make more sense. Use на when at or going to one of the following:

концертconcert
работаwork
свадьбаwedding
рынокmarket
факультетacademic department
почтаpost office
заводfactory
западthe west

The last two, post office and factory, might seem out of place because they are definite places in English, but in Russian they are not. Почта actually means "mail", so going to "the mail" is not a definite place at all. Similarly, a factory is not the building, but the place where things are produced.

Conversely, when describing a specific place, use в:

МоскваMoscow
театрtheater
аптекаpharmacy
гостиницаhotel
офисoffice

Disclaimer

This is only my observation. I have not found a single source to confirm this, and there are probably "exceptions" to argue over — though I can't think of any.

Regardless, I prefer to have a reliable, logical rule with a handful of exception, rather than a giant list of things I must memorize without any sort of explanation or understanding.

If you remember this rule as I have explained it, you will be right most of the time. That's a far better plan than just guessing, and it's much easier to keep in your head than a huge memorization list.


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  • Thank you for this! Very useful, as I was just trying to figure out why it should be в банк but на почту. Good detective work!

  • This blog is awesome. I have just started learning Russian (two months ago) and i am glad that i found your blog just at the begining of my learning journey. It seems like it will help me alot. Thank you.

  • Your observation is priceless! Thanks!

  • A foil: на ресторан is sometimes used, plus the preposition к (as in Я иду к границе, I'm going to the border) always indicates motion toward something. Beware of rules that seem simple where linguistics is concerned; it is almost never the case.

    That said, there is something to be said for artificially simplifying rules for the sake of expedient communication. If you use на instead of в or к, you will probably still be understood, but it will just sound a little odd to the native speaker. When non-native, poor speakers of English attempt to communicate, you often hear this awkward syntax: "I [am] going at the restaurant." The meaning is relatively clear, but sometime you ask for a repetition to clarify the meaning. Similarly, when you speak other languages with native speakers, you might be asked to repeat what you said, which gives them time to process what you're saying. Sometimes they reply with the correct formulation--use this as an opportunity to learn the formulation: "Ahh, you're going to the restaurant..."

    If you are learning Russian (or any language) academically (regardless of whether you are in school or just learning from books or recordings), then it is sometimes difficult to keep the rules in your head, and you must continue to deal with "fixed phrases" that seem to violate grammatical rules, but are accepted as correct: "It's me!". For academic learners, finding a native speaker is the best options for solidifying usage patterns; even if you don't feel comfortable conversing with them, confirming some of these patterns is still an option. Mind you, native speakers of any language will have regional accents, vocabulary, and at times even different phrasing.

    If you are learning by immersion, there nothing to say. You're going to do well in very short order.

    Good luck!
    I mean, Удачи!

  • wooooooow, thanx a loooot, i sooo love u... thanx again

  • Congratulations! Such rule exists but you can't find it in many books. I found it in a book for editors written by one of the most respected russian professors. It clearly states that preposition 'в' is used to indidcate a place that is seen as a limited area. If there is no such meaning to the place then preposition 'на' is used. (http://www.evartist.narod.ru/text1/66.htm#_top)

  • "Borderland" is ONE of the ways the etymology of the name "Ukraine" is translated, but not the main one. Usually that one is used by people who are not from Ukraine. The main root for the name of the country stems from "Країна," which means "country" in Ukrainian. Ukraine's not borderland (since that implies that the "great Russian empire" is the main one here). Ukraine is a COUNTRY.

  • I was born in Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken, but I`ve never heard someone saying на ресторан. How can this be used, could you please explain?

  • Hi, I tested your hypothesis and I can confirm your insight in another case: на вокзале (train station).
    In this case I reviewed an etimological dictionary (http://vasmer.narod.ru) to access to its roof because in first instance did not matched (page 109). Well, surprise ! this word (вокзаґл) comes from the english word "Vauxhall" that refers to places to enjoy near London (or something like this); then the autor say that this word come from "pleasure institution" to the actual "Station".
    In conclusion, your criterium is Ok because the roof of the word refers to a "Conceptual Space".
    I want to continue researching but time is against me :(
    Thank you for share your hypotesis !

  • I've never heard it used either, but a Moskovite friend of mine has told me that it is used sometimes. I generally accept the testimony of native speakers on their authority. My understanding is that it is either idiomatic or possibly regional, such as when American English speakers say "going to the hospital", whereas British English speakers say "going to hospital" (with the article omitted). Each is ungrammatical in the linguistic domain of the other despite both being English.

  • It can be regional, indeed. Thanks for your answer!

  • На ресторан can be used in phrase like: "я собираю деньги на ресторан" translated something like "I am collecting money to spend on restaurant visit"

  • Yep this is how my Russian teacher tried to explain it to us- B is used for concrete places, where as HA is for non concrete things.

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