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In most cases you write "an essay on something" but recently I came across some "essays in something"

Is there a difference in meaning? Is the "in" more formal?

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Also book in versus book on. If you run a Google Ngram, and look at the instances, you will see that there are many cases where people talk about a "book in philosophy" rather than a "book on philosophy." Looking at the search results, I can't see that there is any real difference in meaning. Certainly, some people would never use the preposition in in this context. – Peter Shor Aug 7 '11 at 11:26
@Peter: the problem with Ngrams is that you never know whether it is genuinely used as a phrase. E.g, I would never say 'book in philosophy', but may well have sent an e-mail saying "I read that book in Philosophy of Science", which would register. – TimLymington Aug 16 '11 at 10:09
@TimLymington: Perhaps his scattered thoughts about time and history would have been pulled into a more substantial framework had he ever been able to write the systematic, substantial book in philosophy which he desired. At the bottom of the Ngram, there's a link that lets you see some of the results. This is from one of these, and the majority of hits are using it this way. – Peter Shor Aug 16 '11 at 10:30
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The preferred way to introduce the scope, subject or topic of the essay is "an essay on something". Sometimes in is used but it's quite uncommon and "an essay in ..." has several other uses. For example:

publication "In a recent essay in the journal Nature..."
subject "...a most influential essay in speculative thought"
style "students who wrote their essay in cursive..."
year of publication "In your Harper's essay in 1996, you promised that..."

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subject with "in" would be the same meaning as with "on", wouldn't it. – vonjd Aug 7 '11 at 15:49

In some cases, an essay in... doesn't mean a written work at all. The original meaning was 'an attempt' (from the French, I would guess), and so my first essay in carpentry could be a shelf, whereas my first essay on carpentry is probably telling other people how to put up shelves.

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An essay "on" something has that thing as its topic. An essay "in" something has that thing a its publication medium.

I read an essay in The New Yorker
I wrote an essay on punctuation.

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I ran a google ngram--I think "in" is used a litle more widely than just a print medium. – simchona Aug 7 '11 at 10:34
@simchona: That doesn't prove they are used to mean the same thing, if that's what you're implying. – Robusto Aug 7 '11 at 10:38
People definitely talk about a book in and an essay in various fields (philosophy, history, anthropology). Google Ngrams seems to show relatively few instances of this when the field is in the hard sciences, although I could be misinterpreting the data. I don't believe there's any difference between a book in and a book on a field, but I can't say for sure. – Peter Shor Aug 7 '11 at 11:59

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 14 '14 at 22:20

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