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En vs Dans with locations (French Prepositions of Location)

How to use dans and en with locations in French

Dans (+ un/une, le/la/l'/les, des) and en are both used to mean in a location (town, class...).

Look at these contrasting examples: 

Je suis en classe.I'm in class.

Je suis dans la classe.I'm in the classroom.

The nuance between dans la and en is as follows:

- dans + [article] + [noun] refers to the physical place or building - i.e. inside.
in/inside/at + the/a/his + [place] 
Il y a une boulangerie dans la ville.There is a bakery in the town.

Il y a eu une émeute dans la prison.There's been a riot in the prison.

Les leçons ont lieu dans son école d'ingénieur.Classes take place at her engineering school.

en + [noun] refers to a place in general, or to the function represented by the place.
in [place]
Je vais en ville.I'm going to town.

Le voleur est en prison pour deux ans.The thief is in jail for two years. -> refers to the jail sentence.

Ma fille est en école d'ingénieur cette année.My daughter is in engineering school this year. -> refers to studying there.

 

See also Differences between French and English usages - Using "dans" with streets and means of transportation (French Prepositions of Location)

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Examples and resources

Je suis dans ma classe de françaisI'm in my French class
Je suis en classe de françaisI'm in French class
Il y a eu une émeute dans la prison.There's been a riot in the prison.
Je suis en classe.I'm in class.
Je suis dans la classe.I'm in the classroom.
Je vais en ville.I'm going to town.
Il y a une boulangerie dans la ville.There is a bakery in the town.
Ils sont en enfer.They are in hell.
Le voleur est en prison pour deux ans.The thief is in jail for two years. -> refers to the jail sentence.
Les leçons ont lieu dans son école d'ingénieur.Classes take place at her engineering school.
Ma fille est en école d'ingénieur cette année.My daughter is in engineering school this year. -> refers to studying there.
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