I automatically use the preposition "on" after the words "focus" or "emphasis". However, I've recently come across several instances of them being followed by "in", such as in the following examples:

She graduated with a degree in studio art, with a focus in printmaking.


He graduated with a degree in creative writing, with emphasis in fiction.

A quick Google search shows that this is pretty common. I'm not entirely convinced however, and I can't seem to find anything to support the use of "in" in dictionaries or style guides. Any help?

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    I can think of a couple of isolated cases where you might use focus in: a movie camera operator might focus in (or out). Other prepositions might be appropriate in some cases (add emphasis to a piece of text, for instance). But the most common preposition following these words in the sense of your examples is on. – Charl E Mar 8 '16 at 9:43
  • It can't be so difficult to find "focus" in OALD where you find "focus on". oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/focus_2 – rogermue Apr 8 '16 at 4:05
  • @CharlE In your example where "focus in" (or "focus out") is correct, "in" and "out" seem to be adverbs, not prepositions, as they have no object. Since the question seems to be specifically about prepositions (mentioned in the first sentence), I'd be inclined to ignore the example and simply say that the correct preposition to use with "focus" is "on", not "in". – Andreas Blass Jun 7 '16 at 2:38

Except in very rare circumstances - for example, relating to camera lenses - you should use 'focus on'. Phrases such as 'with a focus in' are often used in reference to degrees, though. Speaking personally, it does sound correct even if it isn't. 'Focus on' works equally well in these situations, though.

If I were to speculate I might suggest that, using your creative writing example, the 'in' may serve to emphasise that the student's study was within the area of fiction rather than on the area as a whole. Perhaps their actual specialism was magic realism, for example. It may also imply inclusion within the field, as opposed to being an uninvolved third party.

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Your initial feeling is very well matching the overall popularity of the collocation of the two words. This ngram shows clearly that the popularity is majorly in favor of on for both words.

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However, surely enough such a simple analysis cannot speak to all ways the words are is used. It just shows which usage is more popular all over, which is always a good indicator to know which usage is less likely to raise eyebrows.

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