While the differences between some prepositions can make for subtle idiomatic changes in sayings, it’s good to know what those changes are when it comes to using them. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between “at hand,” “on hand,” and “in hand.”
What Is The Difference Between “At Hand, “On Hand,” And “In Hand”?
“At hand” should be used when talking about something reasonably close and accessible to you. “On hand” should be used when talking about something closer than “at hand” but not quite on your person. “In hand” should be used when something is close to you and ready to access.
To help with the explanation of the three different phrases, we like to think of them as a distance.
“At hand” is generally the furthest away than all the other prepositions. When something is “at hand,” it means that it’s close to us, but it might be on the other side of a room and, while it won’t take us long to get to, we’re not currently “near” it.
“On hand” is slightly closer than “at hand.” “On hand” typically means that something is on us at the moment of speaking, but we may not be holding it. It could be on our body, or it could be within touching distance, but we don’t physically have a hold of it.
Finally, “in hand” is the closest of the three. It means that something is physically in our hands at the moment of speaking. “In hand” can also be used to mean that we have something “in reserve,” like with the saying “time in hand.”
Is “At Hand, “On Hand,” Or “In Hand” Used The Most?
It will help you to see the differences in uses between the three. That way, you can understand why some are slightly more popular than others.
If you look at this graph, you’ll see that “in hand” and “at hand” are the more popular choices of the three. They’re both fairly similar in popularity, while “on hand” seems to be less popular and only shrinking in popularity over recent years.
In the early 1900s, “on hand” was by far the most popular choice of the three. However, as time went on and they all started getting used less, the other two phrases managed to even out, while “on hand” became less of a common phrase.
7 Examples Of How To Use “At Hand” In A Sentence
We find that examples are some of the best ways for you to learn about the language rules associated with words like these. We’ll put forward a few sentences for you to know to help you understand when you can use the three phrases.
“At hand” is the furthest away compared to the other two. It still means that something is relatively close to us, but it isn’t within touching distance.
- They’ve got an ambulance at hand if you need it.
- We’ve got the boss at hand in the other office if we need help.
- I’ve got my car at hand if you need a lift. Just let me know, and I’ll go and start it up.
- She’s got her boyfriend at hand at all times. I can’t talk to her without him sauntering over.
- We have plenty of food at hand, so just come along and have fun.
- You need more clothes at hand to change into at short notice.
- There are no local jobs at hand for me to apply to.
As you can see, the distance that these examples are from us is relative to what we’re talking about. Something “at hand” can be in the same room, or in the same city, depending on what it is. Generally, it’s close enough to us to warrant saying “at hand.”
Remember, though, our distance rule is mostly there to help you understand the meaning of the three phrases. It’s not an exact science that you need to stick to. All of these are relative to help you out until you understand them.
7 Examples Of How To Use “On Hand” In A Sentence
Let’s move on to the slightly closer variation that is “on hand.” It’s the least popular choice of the three, but it still has its uses in modern English.
“On hand” is closer than “at hand” but not physically as close as “in hand.” We use “on hand” for things that are within touching distance should we need them, or it could apply to something that’s on our person.
- We are on hand in the hospital today.
- I have my umbrella on hand if it starts to rain before I leave.
- Is your coat on hand? It looks like it’s going to rain.
- We have the food in the kitchen; it’s on hand and ready to prepare.
- We have plenty of stock on hand if you need anything from us right away.
- They are on hand if we need to call them to ask for help.
- I have my documents on hand for the boss should he ask for them.
From these examples, you can see that “on hand” is talking about things or people that we might need but we don’t need right now. Generally, when we use “on hand,” we’re setting up the potential case where somebody might need something.
Saying that it’s “on hand” says that we have it ready if you need it, but we won’t use it if you don’t. That’s the best way you can talk about something being “on hand.”
7 Examples Of How To Use “In Hand” In A Sentence
Finally, let’s look at how “in hand” differs from the other two.
“In hand” is the closest of the three phrases and generally means that we’re physically holding something in our hand. It can also mean that we have something in reserve if we need it, too.
- I have plenty of time in hand.
- I have my umbrella in hand because it’s raining so hard.
- We have our coats in hand because it’s chilly.
- He’s always got his briefcase in hand.
- I have too much work in hand.
- You’ve got the tickets in hand, right?
- They’re in hand and ready to use at a moment’s notice!
As you can see, “in hand” applies when we’re talking about physically holding something or having something in reserve.
When we use “in hand,” it’s mostly to say that we already need whatever we or someone else is holding. We’re clarifying with them that they have that thing so we can make use of it right away.
Is “At Hand, “On Hand,” And “In Hand” Hyphenated?
When we follow typical hyphenation rules in English, it helps us to understand when, if ever, these three phrases are hyphenated.
None of the phrases are hyphenated when they are used as phrase nouns in a sentence. However, you have to hyphenate them if you’re using them as an adjective to describe another noun.
If you’re struggling to figure out what that means, look at the following:
- He has his umbrella in hand.
- I have an on-hand assistant.
We don’t hyphenate “in hand” in the first example because it’s used as a phrase noun at the end of the clause. However, in the second sentence, we use “on-hand” to modify the noun “assistant,” which is why it’s hyphenated.
Is “At Hand, “On Hand,” And “In Hand” One Or Two Words?
Following on from the hyphenation point, it’s important to understand how many words the phrases are.
“At hand,” “on hand,” and “in hand” are all two words. They are only considered one word if you have to hyphenate them when they modify a noun in the sentence.
Is It Cash At Hand Or In Hand?
Now let’s finish with a few common sayings that you might hear most. We’ll start with the simple “cast at hand” or “cash in hand.
“Cash in hand” and “cast at hand” are both correct. It’s more common to hear “cash in hand” when talking about the cash that we currently have in our possession. You use “cash at hand” when you have access to cash, but you don’t have it in your possession yet.
Is It Holding Something In My Hand Or On My Hand?
Whenever we’re talking about holding something, there’s only one preposition we can use.
“Holding something in my hand” is the only correct way to say this one. When something is held by our hand, we have to say that it is “in” our hand because our hand acts as a container for that thing. “On my hand” is incorrect when we’re holding something.
You’ll only ever hear “on my hand” when you’re talking about something physically being on top of your hand (not your palm, but the top side).
Is It To Keep Something On Hand Or At Hand?
Finally, when we want to talk about keeping something on hand, we can use both prepositions depending on what we’re saying.
“Keep something on hand” is used when we want to keep something close and always accessible. “Keep something at hand” is less common but is used when something isn’t directly near us and might take a while to access, but we still know where it is.
Martin is the founder of Grammarhow.com. With top grades in English and teaching experience at university level, he is on a mission to share all of his knowledge about the English language. Having written thousands of articles, he is an expert at explaining difficult topics in a simple language.
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