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In a question on Spanish.StackExchange, a question came up about expressing that you are bad at remembering or doing something. Is one "bad at something" or "bad with something" (nouns)? What about "bad at doing something" vs. "bad with doing something" (verbs)? If there are regional differences, what are they?

Examples:

  • I'm bad with names.
  • I'm bad at names.
  • I'm bad with cooking.
  • I'm bad at cooking.
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+1 Interesting question. They are both used, but used differently. Most (if not all) cases have one that should be used, but I'm hard pressed to think up a case where using the "wrong" one would truly be wrong and/or not be understood. –  Jim Nov 28 '11 at 17:44
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4 Answers 4

up vote 30 down vote accepted

My initial thought is that bad at (or good at) is followed by a word that describes some kind of activity and that bad with (or good with), is followed by the name of a thing or a type of person. It works with at least the following:

Bad at: swimming, math, lying, football, acting, planning, French, cooking, chess

Bad with: children, his hands, money, computers, foreigners, figures, animals

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@Jasper Loy: In BrEng, at least, you might hear, if not 'I'm bad with computers', then 'I'm no good with computers'. –  Barrie England Nov 28 '11 at 17:56
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I agree there's a strong tendency. To be honest, I'd have thought it would be easier to kick it around with good rather than bad - it's probably more common overall, and I very much doubt there are any specific things/activities where the preferred preposition changes according to whether one is good or bad at/with them. –  FumbleFingers Nov 28 '11 at 17:59
    
@FumbleFingers: Agreed. As I've suggested, 'not good at/with' may be more frequent than 'bad at/with'. In saying that, it's occurred to me that we're just as likely to say 'no good at/with'. –  Barrie England Nov 28 '11 at 21:51
    
"Bad at verbal noun", "Bad with noun"? –  zzzzBov Nov 28 '11 at 22:12
    
@zzzzBov: '-ing' form always preceded by 'good/bad at'? Probably. But 'good/bad at' is not always followed by an '-ing' form. –  Barrie England Nov 29 '11 at 8:09
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These are very similar. Good/bad with shades towards naturalness and affinity, or lack thereof. A person who is good/bad with computers is able to relate to them comfortably. Good/bad at shades towards skill or competence, or lack thereof. A person who is good/bad at computers is able to operate them competently.

Consider that a person who is bad with children might not relate to them well, but a person who is bad at children might have difficulty conceiving.

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The idiom is usually "bad at", which can be used with either the activity "bad at cooking" or the objects of it "bad at curries".

"Bad with" is rather less common, and always refers to something used or encountered in an activity, not the activity itself or (usually) its results: "bad with recipes".

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I think maybe we only accept bad at [noun] when it's implicitly short for bad at making [curries]. Otherwise @Barrie seems to be right that it's generally at activity/verb as opposed to with noun. –  FumbleFingers Nov 29 '11 at 1:59
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For "regular nouns", there seems to be a pretty even divide between

  • Good/Bad with a thing sounding best
  • Good/Bad at a thing sounding best
  • Both with and at sounding fine

(Barrie England's examples for instance all look right to me)

But for gerunds, verbs ending with -ing that then function as nouns

  • Only good/bad at doing sounds right

(At least in Australian English but I think in British and American too...)

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