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Which preposition is correct in the phrase "proficient in/at/with English"?

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A rare instance of a +1 question. Sounds incomplete, though. English what? the English language? (dealing with) the English people? English (speaking) skills? ... –  Kris Jan 12 '12 at 10:05
    
The English language or any language in general. (just easier to use english on english.stackexchange.com :P) –  c0smikdebris Jan 12 '12 at 16:04
    
So, there's a reason I asked this. And there's a separate new question coming up soon on englishSE regarding prepositions. –  Kris Jan 13 '12 at 4:19
    
@Kris: The context might change the interpretation, but in general if you said "so-and-so is proficient in English" I would understand you to mean the English language. If you meant he was skilled in understanding and working with English people, you'd have to say "proficient at working with English people". But that's probably a moot point as who can make sense of the English? –  Jay Jan 13 '12 at 15:26
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

With is an instrumental usage, as if English is being considered as a tool -- proficient with knives, proficient with horses, proficient with languages, especially English. Perfectly cromulent, but not often encountered, I suspect.

At is a punctual locative, locating some spot in a larger area or metaphoric space (e.g, in May, on Tuesday, at 2:34 pm) -- proficient at getting his deer every year, proficient at locating the fault in my argument, proficient at language and language games.

In is the general case with proficient (or skilled), though in can't take just any clause or phrase as its object; it has to at least be some activity that is learnable, repeatable, and worth repeating. These examples are terrible, for instance -- *proficient in going down to Joe's and bringing me a ham on rye, right now, *proficient in being late three times out of four, etc.

I'm sure there are many other constraints governing the object of in with proficient, and good luck in discovering all of them.

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I think you're right that "at" is more likely to be acceptable in the context of "relatively restricted" activities/whatever. Or more exactly, "in" doesn't sit so well in such localised contexts. And "with" is normally applied in respect of "tools" rather than areas of knowledge. But for the most part, I'd just say use "in" and be done with it. –  FumbleFingers Jan 11 '12 at 19:03
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A lot depends on the metaphor being used; one is on a lawn but in a yard, for instance, because lawn is 2-Dimensional, while yard is 3-. See Fillmore's Deixis Lectures –  John Lawler Jan 11 '12 at 19:10
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+1 for a perfectly cromulent response. ;-) –  David Weinraub Jan 12 '12 at 13:44
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I generally agree with John Lawler, but let me add this spin:

"proficient in" is generally used when discussing a subject area: "proficient in science", "proficient in auto mechanics", etc.

"proficient with" is used when discussing a tool of some sort: "proficient with a hammer", "proficient with the violin".

"proficient at" is used with a specific activity: "proficient at swimming", "proficient at building houses".

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Yes, the constraints on the various preposition complements are very subtle. They're there, for those who notice them; but you have to pay attention to details like that for a long time to develop a good sense for them. That's why noticing vocabulary use and developing a memory for phrases is so important in mastering English, as it is for Chinese and other analytic languages. –  John Lawler Jan 12 '12 at 2:58
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I'm not sure at or with are ever/always completely wrong, but in is far more common.

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It may be significant that in the sequence proficient in/at/with a, the "with" version moves decisively into "second position" - but even there, "proficient in a..." is three times more common.

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Each of with, at and in have respective relevance. This ngram does not include the words that follow the with, at or in. See also JohnLawler & Jay below. –  Kris Jan 12 '12 at 10:00
    
@Kris: I did agree (comment and upvote) with John. But for OP's specific case, in English is the overwhelmingly more common version. For the other prepositions it can get very tricky - for example, I would always say proficient in housebuilding or proficient at building houses, never the other way around. All four permutations are pretty rare word sequences, but from the limited data available in google books it seems I'm not alone in making some subtle distinction there. But I certainly wouldn't want to try and explain the rationale to a non-native speaker! –  FumbleFingers Jan 12 '12 at 17:05
    
See also my comment at OP: "English what? the English language? (dealing with) the English people? English (speaking) skills? " -- The point is being raised in a separate new question relating to prepositions soon. :) –  Kris Jan 13 '12 at 4:17
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