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Consider the following scenario:

A woman at a store is shown a dress by a clerk. After a few moments, she tells the clerk that she would like "to see it in red".

The clerk would then go and fetch her the same dress but colored red, rather than whatever he had just shown her.

There would be no confusion- the in red is clearly describing an attribute of the dress. If the clerk were to then drape a red blanket around the woman and show her the same dress, the clerk would surely be fired.

And yet, if I were to look at a picture of a coffee table online and say "I want to see that in person", the same logic could not be applied. You can't see the coffee table in person, because it is a coffee table. Coffee tables don't typically come as people (I should hope!).

So is one correct over the other? Shouldn't the meaning be consistent across the two phrases? Or is there some way of considering the two different contexts that both make sense from?

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"Shouldn't the meaning be consistent across the two phrases?" No, nothing in linguistics "should" be except what actually is. –  tenfour Jul 12 '12 at 13:35
    
Better use shop assistant then clerk. –  speedyGonzales Jul 12 '12 at 13:45

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In short, the word "in" has multiple uses.

  • see that dress in red - See the same kind of dress, but with red fabric

  • see the Eiffel Tower in person - Visit the Eiffel Tower yourself instead of looking at photos of it

  • The business was in the red - The business has no money and their balance sheet total is in red ink signifying a loss

  • He was in the pool - He was physically located within the pool

None of these are the same meanings of the word "in". They are similar but not identical. In some cases the prepositional phrase "in blah blah" modifies some parts of the sentence, in other cases it modifies others. Context lets you decide.

  • I saw that coffee table in red - Is the coffee table red? Or were you wearing red clothes when you saw it? Both interpretations are possible, but only one is likely.
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Accepting this one as right because it seems to carry the moral that I was missing: "Context lets you decide" when a word "has multiple uses". It seemed illogical to me but I suppose if you view them as different entities or as different entries in the dictionary, then I can see how the prepositional modifies different things. –  ngmiceli Jul 12 '12 at 16:41
1  
Third interpretation: Glasses or contact lenses that tint everything red ;) –  Izkata Jul 12 '12 at 17:59

"In person" seems to be used as a compound adjective. To see "in person" may apply to the viewer or to what is being viewed.

So it would be grammatical to say:

I saw Lady Gaga in person.

(What is being viewed is in my presence.)

It's also grammatical to say

I will interview Bill in person.

(I will interview Bill and Bill will be interviewed by me. Both Bill and I are going to be in the same room together.)

It it would be mistaken to say,

*The coffee table inspected me in person.

(The coffee table is inanimate.)

In contrast,

I inspected the coffee table in person.

would make perfect sense.

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In person is different to in red.

In person relates to location and time, specifically being in the same place at the same time.

So when you say

I'd like to see the coffee table in person

You mean that you'd like to be in the same place at the same time as the coffee table.

Similarly, as with people or events:

I want to talk to the minister in person, about this issue.

This means you want to meet the minister to discuss the matter.

I'd really like to hear the band in person.

Means you'd like to hear the band live.

In these instances in person takes on a similar meaning to in real life. It implies that there should be no separation between you and the real thing. Person is not the quality of the thing you want to experience, but a quality of the experience.

When talking about a quality of a thing, e.g. colour, size, texture, material, etc., then in X is simply pointing out how you'd like to change which quality, or which quality you'd like to focus on.

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In person refers to I, not the table. The idea expressed 'I want in person to see the table', which in English is expressed the same way as 'I want to see Lady Gaga in person'; context determines which is meant.

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Still doesn't quite answer my question. I want to see the dress in red is definitely valid, but the in red refers to the dress, and not the I. –  ngmiceli Jul 12 '12 at 16:35

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