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It seems to me that in and of work equally well in sentences such as these:

    • Habitat selection in birds is frequently studied.
    • Habitat selection of birds is frequently studied.
    • Variation is a key concept in statistics.
    • Variation is a key concept of statistics.
    • The function of behaviour is an important theme in evolution.
    • The function of behaviour is an important theme of evolution.

Should either in or of be favoured in the above sentences?

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    I would prefer "in" in all three cases; "of" seems less apt. You could improve it some by making the object more explicit: "of evolutionary theory", for example.
    – Dan Bron
    Sep 8, 2014 at 18:08
  • This is easy to understand if the concept is clear, else very hard to explain the difference. Are you prepared for a long answer with patience? :)
    – Kris
    Feb 6, 2015 at 7:38
  • Further complicating things, the instances as a class are not all the same, that is, the distinction brought about by the preposition change is for a different purpose.
    – Kris
    Feb 6, 2015 at 7:41
  • @DanBron Every one of the six is grammatically correct and makes eminent sense. They mean different things, though.
    – Kris
    Feb 6, 2015 at 7:42

2 Answers 2

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of in the first case and in in the second two.

The first case is referring to studying an action performed by a being. It's the action of birds being studied. I think with of, the sentence is equivalent to "Birds' habitat selection is frequently studied" as intended.

The second two are stating that some topic exists in some field.

Having said that I do not know a general rule to cite that will work for all such sentences =(.

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  • "Having said that I do not know a general rule" so what's said is an educated opinion, not an answer, right?
    – Kris
    Feb 6, 2015 at 7:36
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in in the first case, but either in or or in the second and third.

"habitat selection of birds" can be misparsed as referring to how the habitat selects the birds.

"habitat selection in birds" avoids this ambiguity. The birds are the actors in the selection, not the objects of selection!

With the other two, neither preposition introduces any such ambiguity.

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