'In' or 'Within': What's the Difference?

By Sophia Merton, updated on October 14, 2022

Have you ever wondered whether 'in' or 'within' is more appropriate for a specific sentence? Though both of these words are prepositions that can occasionally be used interchangeably, there are subtle differences you will want to understand.

In short, the difference between 'in' and 'within' is:

  • 'In' is used to describe something definite (like location) or inclusion. It can also be used to mean 'into'
  • 'Within' is less precise and describes something inside of certain boundaries or limits

The Difference Between ‘In’ and ‘Within’

Both ‘in’ and ‘within’ are prepositions.

There is a subtle difference between their meanings, however.

‘In’ denotes location or inclusion. It can also be used to mean ‘into.’

Here are some examples:

  • He is in the most popular fraternity. (Inclusion)
  • The CEO lives in New York City. (Location)
  • Jumping in the ocean was an adrenaline rush. (Into)

‘Within,’ on the other hand, means “inside the limits or boundaries.”

For example:

  • Don’t keep your medicine within reach of children.
  • Once he was within the borders of his home country, he felt a sense of relief.

‘In’ and ‘within’ can also be used to speak about time in slightly different ways.

  • In two days, I can finish the job.
  • Within two days, I can finish the job.

The first example can either mean the speaker will resume the job in two days or that they can roughly finish the job in two days plus or minus a few hours.

The second example expresses that the person will have the job complete by the time two days have passed.

When to Use ‘In’ Vs. ‘Within’

Though the difference between these two words is subtle, and they can sometimes be used interchangeably without a problematic shift in meaning, it’s important to understand how to use them properly.

The best rule of thumb when deciding whether to use ‘in’ or ‘within’ is to determine your intent:

  • Are you describing the location of something, something definite, an inclusion, or using ‘in’ to mean ‘into’? (Use ‘in”)
  • Are you describing something inside boundaries or an estimate? (Use ‘within’)

Sentence Examples for ‘In’

‘In’ is used more often than ‘within,’ and you will find it is probably the clearer choice in many circumstances.

‘In’ for Inclusion

  • Jonathan is in the military.
  • All of her daughters are in the drama club.
  • She is in the band.
  • No one knew he was in the choir until the concert.
  • Mackenzie was in the freshmen class.

‘In’ for Location or Something Definite

  • She has four TVs in her house.
  • The statues are in the church.
  • Rebecca was born in Massachusetts.
  • I need the report in one week.
  • The flowers are in the car.

‘In’ for ‘Into’

  • Please our some water in my glass.
  • Let’s go jump in the lake.
  • Why don’t you come in my office?
  • They piled in the car.
  • The cat ran in the basement.
  • On Friday, he came in the store to buy an engagement ring.

Sentence Examples for ‘Within’

‘Within’ provides boundaries or limits rather than a definite location, indication of inclusion, or synonym of ‘into.’

Location Examples

  • Containers of liquids over a certain size aren’t allowed within the secure part of the airport.
  • In this town, you are only allowed to let your dog off-leash within a fenced area.
  • She wanted a hotel within walking distance.
  • My car is somewhere within this parking garage, but I can’t remember precisely where it is.
  • It’s dangerous to store cleaning products within reach of young children.
  • He was born within 10 miles of the state capital.
  • There was a dispute within the organization that led to its downfall.
  • Within the operating system, there were protections against hacking.

Theoretical Boundary Examples

  • It seemed unlikely, but he had to admit it was within the bounds of possibility.
  • His music never fell within the boundaries of any specific genre.
  • You have to understand that not everyone thinks within the same parameters.
  • The jurors believed it was within the realm of reason that the defendant was innocent.

Time Examples

  • Tommy wanted to repay his debt within three years.
  • It arrived within two days after I ordered it.
  • Once you have placed your order, you will receive written confirmation within 24 hours.
  • Elizabeth was hoping she would be walking again within six months after the operation.

Final Thoughts on 'In' Vs. 'Within'

In some instances, you can get away with using 'in' and 'within' interchangeably. For example, you could say that 'the document is in the building' or 'the document is within the building' without too much of an issue.

In other situations, though, it's more important to be selective about your choice between 'in' or 'within.'

For instance, you wouldn't want to say, 'she jumped within the lake' when your implied meaning is that 'she jumped in the lake' or 'she jumped into the lake.'

The English language can sometimes make your head spin with lots of perplexing words and phrases. Don't forget to check out all of our articles about confusing words to help you in your quest to become a better writer, speaker, reader, and listener!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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