In doing a translation on duolingo, another translator had translated a phrase to say "at the service of X". I edited this to "in the service of X" and left a comment that as a native speaker, hearing "at the service of X" makes me think that one is at X's funeral, whereas "in the service of" seems relatively common. He followed with this link to Reverso, which lists "at the service of" with a meaning along these lines: dictionary.reverso.net, but does not come up with anything for "in the service of". I went to ngram and it appears to support my experience, though of course there is no context. Also, Thesaurus.com lists synonyms for "in the service of" but not "at...".

Is "at the service of" perhaps a British-ism?

  • Bear in mind no-one says "He's at/in the service of [someone]" today, nor do we say "I'm in your service" (it's always at there). I seriously doubt there's any major US/UK split in preposition usage here, but I think you need to give a specific context before we can meaningfully address the matter of which sounds more "natural" (which I'm sure has changed somewhat over time anyway, if not by region). Aug 10 '14 at 18:04
  • The Reverso 'definition' is: << 21 To be at the service of a person or organization means to be available to help or be used by that person or organization. >> (Sentient subject not required.) The expression 'in the service of' is dated, as FF says, and is an expansion of Google D's second definition here: << in service phrase [including the noun] service 1. in or available for use. // 2. (dated) employed as a servant. >> [eg 'My Mountbatten Years: In the Service of Lord Louis' // 'The murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 by knights in the service of King Henry II']. Aug 10 '14 at 21:46
  • This came up in translating a work of fiction from Spanish to English. The literal translation was "<they> are at the service of <some evil overloard>". This sounds like a permanent condition and so I think "in the service of" is the more appropriate translation.
    – sfjac
    Aug 11 '14 at 17:47
  • @sfjac, it's been a long time since I failed Spanish in HS, but my gut is if they're estar the service of the Evil Overlord, they're at his service; if they're ser the service of the EO, they're in his service.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 11 '14 at 17:56

There is a distinction here: to be "in the service of X" is a permanent condition; to be "at the service of X" is a temporary situation. The sense of obligation in the former is much stronger in the former than the latter.

To be in someone's service means you (in a sense) belong to him. Vassals are in the service of their lords; soldiers are in the service of the Army. There is absolutely no sense of choice.

By contrast, to be at someone's service means you are ready or prepared to serve him. This phrase is most commonly used (today) by one who is choosing to make himself available to another, almost always temporarily.

For example, if you were to visit a wealthy friend's mansion, the butler is in the service of your host, but will typically say "I'm at your service; let me know if you need anything" to you.

It is understood that the butler's (permanent, mandatory) obligation to your host supersedes his (temporary, voluntary) obligation to you. So while he is at your service so long as you behave yourself, happily serving you tea and crumpets at your request, being in the service of his employer, he will surely remove you should you displease your host.

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