I've come across a question while writing an exam

Roger really excelled ___ sports

A) at
B) on
C) in
D) for

My first thought was 'in', later I remembered using 'at' also. I've searched for this in a few forums, there they say both 'excel in' and 'excel at' are correct expressions and could not really make out any differences.

Now my problem is that I'm an ESL and the above question doesn't give options like 'both a and c correct'. I'm not sure what option to pick for these kind of questions.

So, what is the correct option for above question?. Answers from experts are much appreciated. If both are correct what is the intention of question paper setter?

  • 5
    It's a bad question - although on and for are inarguably "incorrect/non-idiomatic" there's no justification for suggesting at is any "better" than in, or vice-versa. It's obviously not actually the intention of the question, but the effect of it is to show that the person who wrote the question is in the wrong job. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 18:22
  • @FumbleFingers may be it's due to ignorance of question paper setters (copying the sentence from somewhere and making options themselves) I came across many instances of this kind. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 18:43
  • It would probably help other users of this site if you posted links to any such examples (if only so people would know to avoid those sites, which are probably poor quality and thus not suitable for use as "learning resources"). Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 18:52
  • 1
    A look at OALD would answer your question. to excel in/at something. oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/excel?q=excel
    – rogermue
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 18:24

5 Answers 5


While 'excel at' and 'excel in' are generally interchangeable, I do think there is a subtle distinction.

excel at seems to apply better to specific activities.

He excels at service returns in badminton.

excel in seems to apply better to more general categories or things that cover many activities.

She excels in school.

To me, "She excels at school" sounds thoroughly ungrammatical and would not be uttered by a native speaker. "He excels in service returns in badminton" also sounds a little bit strange but other native speakers than me might use it.

  • 'She excels at school', sounds perfectly alright to my ear. I do however agree that 'at' works better with the service returns. 'He excels at quadratic equations',seems similar. You may be on to something when you say that 'at' applies better (I don't like your use of 'best' here) to specific activities.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 8:54
  • @WS2, I will amend my ways and make them better instead of asserting that they are best!
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 9:14
  • Your answer is more agreeable than the others' Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 9:22
  • @virmaior and WS2:Good points both. "She excels at school" does not sound right to me either, but I'm not sure if there is a clear rule to exclude it.
    – Matt D.
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 20:15
  • 1
    My guess is that originally, excel was used mostly to describe being superior in some field of activity to which the preposition in applied, and so in has a longer history with the word. Later, usage expanded to include things to which at applied better than in (specific actions rather than fields of activity), and so at came to be used with excel as well. Just a guess.
    – Matt D.
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 20:18

I believe the intended correct answer is "in". You are good "at" something, but you excel "in" a sport or an activity.

Possibly it is also acceptable to say that someone excels "at" something, but "in" should be more correct. As in:

Little Johnny excels in debate class. He also excels in sports and in many other activities.

Note that in the above example it might sound OK to say "excels at sports" or "excels at many other activities"-- but "excels at debate class" is clearly wrong.

So I would argue that in is the true, correct preposition to be used with "excel", and at is a late-comer that has slipped into usage because it is applicable to many (but not all) of the things that one can excel in and therefore sounds OK when used in those phrases.


Merriam Webster online (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/excel) gives examples of usage with both at and in:

excel in sports

excelled at lipreading

As they use 'in' in the phrase with 'sports', I maintain my position that in is more correct, at least in this specific case.

  • Thanks but can you tell me an example for 'excel at' usage? Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:06
  • Well, you could say that someone 'excels at math', or 'excels at typing', or 'excels at sports', and these would sound correct to almost anyone you talked to. But I would argue that most likely they are all incorrect-- probably 'in' is the more correct pronoun.
    – Matt D.
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:10
  • But in wordweb software dictionary, the word 'excel at' gives meaning=be good at, where as 'excel in' returns no result.... Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:13
  • Well, 'excel in' is definitely correct whether or not 'excel at' is also correct, so that is probably just an oversight in your software dictionary.
    – Matt D.
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:16
  • Merriam Webster online gives examples with both 'at' and 'in': merriam-webster.com/dictionary/excel
    – Matt D.
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:17

We use AT when we speak about sports, activities: excel at football.

And we use IN when we speak about academic subjects: excel in maths.


In Britain 'excel at' and 'excel in' are to all intents interchangeable. I cannot think of any example of one where you couldn't with equal justification also use the other. Can anyone?

Responder's own edit: see @ virmajor reply. They may be on to something here.

  • Only place I can think of is the lyrics to Take That's Back for Good: “In the twist of separation, you excelled at being free”. And the only reason it doesn't work there is that that's just not how the lyrics to that song go. Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 1:50

I agree with the notion that "at" sounds better for a specific activity or task while "in" sounds better for a general category. That said, in my humble opinion - English is not my mother tongue - I think there is also a subtle nuance in the intended usage of "at" or "in". When you hear someone say "she excels at school" and you find it alright, maybe you are thinking that that "at" does not denote "school" as a learning subject, but is a preposition of location. In that case, the sentence can be paraphrased "at school, she excels (in many things)".

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.