‘On time’ vs. ‘in time’ – the difference

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The difference between “on time” and “in time” is a subtle one, and the two expressions may sometimes be used interchangeably. Nevertheless, they express two slightly different ideas:

in time = early enough; not late
on time = punctually; according to the schedule

They are often interchangeable when the implied meaning is “not too late”. Either variant is possible in

The road is closed; I won’t be able to get to work in time / on time.

When you say that you “cannot get there in time”, the implied meaning is that you are going to be late, and when you “cannot be there on time”, the implied meaning is that you are going to miss the scheduled start of your working day, which is essentially the same thing.

On the other hand, when punctuality with respect to some specific time is required, “on time” sounds more natural:

The meeting has been scheduled for 3 pm. Please, arrive on time.

Of course, it is probably fine to arrive at 2:55, but the point is that you should be present in the correct conference room at 3 o’clock.

When it is the fact that you are not (too) late that matters, “in time” is the more natural variant; in fact, you can still be “in time” even when you are not “on time”:

I didn’t arrive at the cinema on time, but I still arrived in time to see the whole film.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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