Learning which preposition to use in a language, and in which context, often involves learning some general rules of thumb (which often differ greatly from language to language) and many detailed rules that typically seem arbitrary.
For a small example of this, consider how you talk in English about what you did, will do, or regularly do during the weekend. Speakers of British English typically use ‘at the weekend’ but speakers of American English typically say ‘on the weekend’. Data from Google’s NGRAM viewer shows this difference clearly in figures 1 (for British English) and 2 (American English). The red line is for ‘at the weekend’ and the blue line is for ‘on the weekend’.
Neither of these forms is better or more logical than the other. British English simply uses one more or less arbitrary convention, but American English uses a different one.
A published summary
In British or American English? A handbook of word and grammar patterns (2006, pages 44 and 163), John Algeo says:
- Before (the) weekend(s), the favoured preposition is at in British English but over, on or during in American English.
- At the weekends and on the weekend have similar frequencies in British English. On weekends is twice as frequent as either of them.
- In American English on the weekend and on weekends have similar frequencies. At the weekends is very rare.
I’m not sure my own (British) usage tallies with Algeo’s findings:
- I use at the weekend if I’m am talking about a single past or future weekend, usually next weekend or last weekend, though it could be a single specified weekend in the more remote future or more remote past.
- I use at weekends or at the weekend referring to recurring habitual events.
- I believe I don’t ever use at the weekends. I think this is because the definite article the would single out one particular weekend or particular weekends—and doing this would clash with using the plural to refer to recurring habitual events.
- I believe I don’t ever use the preposition on with (the) weekend(s).
- I use over or during to emphasise that an event will occur, did occur or habitually occurs at some point during the course of the weekend (or occasionally in referring to habitual recurring events). I think I am more likely to use over in referring to an event that has a longer duration (or that occurs in instalments) and during for an event with a shorter duration.
A change in progress?
‘On the weekend’ still sounds unnatural to my British ears. But I increasingly hear younger speakers of British English (teenagers and young adults) say ‘on the weekend’, perhaps because of exposure to American English. Maybe in a few decades we will all be saying ‘on the weekend’ on both sides of the Atlantic.