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The Russian national anthem describes Russia as, "Одна ты на свете" using the preposition на.

Recently, I wrote a poem praising someone as "Одна [ты] ___ XU," where "XU" refers to the University of X, and Google translate gave me в as the preposition in the blank.

Is Google translate correct? Why would the preposition be в in one case and на in the other?

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    you either asking why "на" and "в" are combined with nouns in different cases - well or why "на свете" but "в мире" - I am not sure. However, in both cases the answer is - just because. It just should be memorized. – shabunc Jan 8 at 13:15
  • Why is it "in the world" but "on the field"? Why is it "at my place" but " in your room"? Not everything can be logically explained and you have just to memorize it. – Abakan Jan 13 at 23:20
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When it comes to locations — buildings, countries and territories (or the world, свет) — certain nouns require "на" while most are used with "в":

  • На работе - в университете
  • На рынке - в магазине
  • На лугу - в поле
  • На площади - в сквере
  • На кухне - в комнате
  • На каникулах - в отпуске
  • На Урале - в Сибири
  • На Алтае - в Альпах

Some can be used with either: на свете - в целом свете, во дворе - на дворе, на Украине - в Украине, the latter pair being politically sensitive. "В районе" is the norm while "на районе" is low-class slang (often spelled "на раёне" to mock people who use it).

"В" is the regular one. "На" is regarded as an exception, although some regularities exist e.g. cities are always used with "в", while islands require "на": на острове Святой Елены, на Канарах, на Таити. For island countries, the choice may depend on whether you refer to the island (на Барбадосе) or the country (в Барбадосе).

So yes, "в университете" is correct in this context. I would even say "ты одна такая в целом университете". "На университете" would be "on top of the university (building)" or the low-class version of "в университете".

In Zalizniak's Grammatical Dictionary of Russian "на" nouns are tagged with П2(на).

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    На Руси - в России. – Elena Jan 8 at 16:04
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    The other regularities for "на" is an open elevated location - "на холме", "на крыше", "на полке", and being exposed to something - "на виду", "на свету". – Alexander Jan 8 at 18:46
  • @Alexander, of course, the spatial meaning of the prepositions "в" and "на" applies to most nouns: "(сидеть) на крыше" and "(дыра) в крыше" mean different things, while no matter what you do in the Urals, you would be "на Урале" and not "в Урале". – Sergey Slepov Jan 12 at 18:17
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In fact when emphasizing singularity or uniqueness (often by way of metonymy) the idiomatic preposition is на which governs Accusative case particularly when pronoun весь is used but on only

(такая) одна на весь свет (metonymical use of свет (мир) in a sense of all the world's population)
одна на весь университет (metonymical use of университет in a sense of all the students)
один на миллион
Школа для незрячих – одна на страну

In other cases correct preposition depends on the noun denoting location and governs Prepositional case instead, as exemplified in the lyrics of this Soviet-pop song about motherland (a popular topic)

одна ты на свете и в сердце одна

3

In one case you are on the earth, or на свете.

In the other case, you are at university, that is, with in its confines, not on top of a surface, so в is the better proposition.

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    I agree, general rule of thumb: if it is on the surface - на is used, if it is inside of some box or 3D-structure - в is used. But, of course, there are a lot of exceptions and special cases that need to be remembered. – farfareast Jan 9 at 0:34
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The correct forms are:

(i) Ты одна на университет.

(ii) Ты одна в университете.

Both variants have the same meaning, ''You are only one at the university,'' but there is a subtle difference in the flavour. Sentence (i) somewhat emphasises the ratio, i.e., 1 to 1000 or how many students study at this university. It is like a fraction: The person you are talking about is in the numerator, and the rest of the university is in the denominator. Since you put the person you are talking about to the numerator, you use the preposition ''на''. Sentence (ii) just neutrally conveys the information that the person you are talking about is unique, only one, so now the focus is entirely on the person.

If you say, ''У нас пять отличников на университет,'' you imply that very few students manage to get only the highest marks. And if you say, ''У нас пять отличников в университете,'' you just matter-of-factly convey the information that there are five students who have managed to get only the highest marks.

Analogously, there is a subtle difference between ''ты одна на весь свет'' и ''ты одна на всем свете.'' They are analogous to sentences (i) and (ii), respectively, with the second sentence requiring ''на'' instead of ''в'' simply because the world is perceived to be a surface, the surface of our planet, and people are ON the surface, hence ''на.''

In essence, ''на'' = ''on,'' and ''в'' = ''in,'' but non-native speakers need a lot of practice and experience in order to avoid mistakes in using Russian prepositions, as Russian is a highly idiomatic language.

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