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In a document I found the following sentence:

listeners are more accurate at understanding speech spoken in their own accent...

Would it be an error to use "in" instead of "at"?

Actually in this case "at" sounds better than "in", but in general before verb is "at" always used?

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Two quick points. First, "understanding" is not a verb there. Verbs don't take prepositions at all. It's a gerund. Second, you forget that "accurate" is at least as crucial as "understanding" in determining which preposition to use. This is true of other adjectives as well. You're always good at something; you are never good over, behind, out, or between maths, car repair, or swimming. You can only be good (or bad) at it. –  RegDwigнt Nov 26 '12 at 10:36
    
@RegDwighт you can be good with things, too. Normally you can only be good with objects. It might be OK to be good with understanding speech, at least colloquially. –  Matt Эллен Nov 26 '12 at 11:02
    
Ok. Now, depending on the meaning of the sentence, can "with" and "at" be used interchangeably? –  mt22 Nov 26 '12 at 11:30
    
@Matt well yes, and as Bill points out in his answer you can also be good in bed. Still, looking only at the word after the preposition is generally not enough. Collocations are no one-way streets. –  RegDwigнt Nov 26 '12 at 11:38
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Here are the first 25 COCA results for Adjective + in understanding (the number on the right is the number of hits for a sequence). In all of these the adjective preceding the prepositional phrase characterizes instrument which leads to understanding rather than characterizing some person's ability at understanding.

1   HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING THE      26
2   USEFUL IN UNDERSTANDING THE       24
3   INTERESTED IN UNDERSTANDING THE   23
4   IMPORTANT IN UNDERSTANDING THE    15
5   HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING HOW       8
6   INTERESTED IN UNDERSTANDING HOW    5
7   IMPORTANT IN UNDERSTANDING AND     4
8   CRITICAL IN UNDERSTANDING THE      4
9   INVOLVED IN UNDERSTANDING THE      4    
10  USEFUL IN UNDERSTANDING HOW        4
11  IMPORTANT IN UNDERSTANDING HOW     3
12  HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING GLOBAL    3
13  CRUCIAL IN UNDERSTANDING THE       3
14  INTERESTED IN UNDERSTANDING THEIR  3
15  INTERESTED IN UNDERSTANDING WHAT   3
16  INVOLVED IN UNDERSTANDING OR       3
17  USEFUL IN UNDERSTANDING WHY        3
18  BENEFICIAL IN UNDERSTANDING THE    2
19  ESSENTIAL IN UNDERSTANDING THE     2
20  CRITICAL IN UNDERSTANDING HOW      2
21  INTERESTED IN UNDERSTANDING AND    2
22  HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING WHY       2
23  HELPFUL IN UNDERSTANDING WHAT      2
24  NECESSARY IN UNDERSTANDING WHAT    2
25  PIVOTAL IN UNDERSTANDING THE       2

Now see the results for Adjective + at understanding. In all of these, the adjective characterizes a person's ability to understand.

1   GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING THE              4    
2   SUCCESSFUL AT UNDERSTANDING MICROBIAL  1    
3   SLOW AT UNDERSTANDING AND              1
4   POOR AT UNDERSTANDING ECOLOGICAL       1
5   INCOMPETENT AT UNDERSTANDING HOW       1    
6   GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING WHY              1
7   GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING THEIR            1
8   GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING TECHNICAL        1
9   GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING RIDDLES          1
10  GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING OR               1
11  GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING HOW              1
12  GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING GLOBAL           1
13  BETTER AT UNDERSTANDING DIFFERENT      1
14  BETTER AT UNDERSTANDING A              1
15  BAD AT UNDERSTANDING WHAT              1
16  BAD AT UNDERSTANDING HOW               1
17  ADEPT AT UNDERSTANDING THEIR           1
18  ADEPT AT UNDERSTANDING AND             1

It wouldn't be safe, however, to assume that this pattern holds for any given adjective + PP[pres.ppl] combination. When we search for skilled + (in/at) + V.pres.ppl we find 109 hits for skilled at V-ing and 173 hits for skilled in V-ing. Not much of a discrepancy as compared to the clear differentiation between in understanding and at understanding.

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Lots of effort, sure. However, Searches and nGrams are not context sensitive. They are not canonical. It's been repeatedly asserted that they at best help in hypothesizing, not drawing inferences directly. Using them this way is not advisable. –  Kris Nov 27 '12 at 4:46
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@Kris : first, it's easy to use a corpus. second, if the question is whether a given type of expression is grammatical, then I would argue that corpus data is certainly appropriate. You are apparently worried whether the examples pulled are true predicative adjective phrases of the type [.AP A PP ] because the corpora are "not context sensitive." This would be a valid argument if you could come up with an alternate parsing that my search might have accidentally caught. –  jlovegren Nov 27 '12 at 13:11
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Although I don't think it's standard American English to use "in", I do think it would be understandable to any native speaker of English, but I'd use "at" here instead of "in" just because it sounds "right" to my ear. "He's good at (playing) the piano" is normal, but "He's good in (playing) the piano" is not. "He's good at math" is normal, as is "He's good in math". The structure "to be good at [doing something]" is a standard idiom in English. "She's good at horseback riding" but "She's good in bed" are normal. "He's good at French" means that he's a good French speaker, and maybe "He's good in French" means that when he says things like that in French, they're funnier or more poetic or more interesting than when he says them in English.

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So at is used generally when describing actions and in is used for specific instances ("in French" = "when speaking in French") or locations ("in bed", although that's almost an idiom in its own right). –  Andrew Leach Nov 26 '12 at 10:39
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@AndrewLeach: That's seems a reasonable analysis, yes. "Good in bed" or "in the sack" but "Good at the beast with two backs". –  user21497 Nov 26 '12 at 10:44
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We generally use at with reference to a verb/ gerund, in with a noun. This is not a rule of grammar -- not even a necessary requirement, though.

He is good at playing football.
He is good in sports.

Also, from the same example above, we can see that in agrees with a broader subject (sports) compared with at, which is used with a well-defined, focused subject (football).

"... more accurate at understanding speech ..." is therefore, correct and better than with in.

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