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Mark Twain said,

Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.

Could he have used consists of there instead of consists in and still meant the same thing? In other words, are there a nuances to the word consist that shade the meaning in such a way that a different preposition is desirable?

Note that a search of the corpus shows consists in steadily declining since the 19th century (Twain's), and consists of may be supplanting it in all meanings.

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The question is really whether Twain meant what modern English uses as consists of or whether these days he would have written subsists in. Call for OED, I think. –  Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 15:11
    
@AndrewLeach: Thanks, but that is not the question I am asking, and I don't think that Twain, careful writer that he was, would have used subsists in when he meant something else, even today. –  Robusto Dec 29 '12 at 16:04
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Consist seems to occur in two constructions, one of which is followed by a list of Noun Phrase constituents introduced by of, but generally not in:

  • Columbus's fleet consisted of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
  • ??Columbus's fleet consisted in the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

The other construction is usually followed by a gerund clause or a list of parallel gerunds, and this allows in, and also of.

  • Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

Though of sounds a bit off to me in the sentence above; this is probably due to my own personal usage habits, however, rather than to any rule. Preposition usage in cases like this is often idiosyncratic and fluid. Don't trust usage books; they're just personal opinions that got published, not evidence.

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'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage' is an exception. It's corpus-based (and recommended by David Crystal). –  Barrie England Dec 29 '12 at 16:55
    
That's as clear as can be, then. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '12 at 17:05
    
Twain's usage itself may have skewed usage figures for good breeding, so I checked Google Books for politeness consists in/of. As expected, the former has declined significantly over the past couple of centuries - but the latter was always vanishingly rare. –  FumbleFingers Dec 29 '12 at 18:23
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The OED shows that the use of consist of and consist in has been unsettled over the centuries. There is just one definition given for the former:

To be made up or composed of; to have as its constituent substance or elements.

However, the latter has six definitions, of which I think the one which applies to Twain’s use is:

To have its essence or essential character in.

It follows that I don’t think Twain could have used consists of here. As I read it, he is emphasising the essential qualities of good breeding, rather than the elements that make it up. Consist of seems to me to be best reserved for more tangible things like lists of ingredients, where consist in can certainly not be used.

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