In most cases you write "an essay on something" but recently I came across some "essays in something"

Is there a difference in meaning? Is the "in" more formal?


3 Answers 3


The preferred way to introduce the scope, subject or topic of the essay is "an essay on something". Sometimes in is used but it's quite uncommon and "an essay in ..." has several other uses. For example:

publication "In a recent essay in the journal Nature..."
subject "...a most influential essay in speculative thought"
style "students who wrote their essay in cursive..."
year of publication "In your Harper's essay in 1996, you promised that..."

  • subject with "in" would be the same meaning as with "on", wouldn't it.
    – vonjd
    Aug 7, 2011 at 15:49
  • You don't seem to realise that your second example uses a different sense of the word 'essay'. Sep 9, 2017 at 14:56

In some cases, an essay in... doesn't mean a written work at all. The original meaning was 'an attempt' (from the French, I would guess), and so my first essay in carpentry could be a shelf, whereas my first essay on carpentry is probably telling other people how to put up shelves.

  • I'm glad someone pointed this out. Sep 9, 2017 at 14:56

An essay "on" something has that thing as its topic. An essay "in" something has that thing a its publication medium.

I read an essay in The New Yorker
I wrote an essay on punctuation.

  • I ran a google ngram--I think "in" is used a litle more widely than just a print medium.
    – simchona
    Aug 7, 2011 at 10:34
  • @simchona: That doesn't prove they are used to mean the same thing, if that's what you're implying.
    – Robusto
    Aug 7, 2011 at 10:38
  • People definitely talk about a book in and an essay in various fields (philosophy, history, anthropology). Google Ngrams seems to show relatively few instances of this when the field is in the hard sciences, although I could be misinterpreting the data. I don't believe there's any difference between a book in and a book on a field, but I can't say for sure. Aug 7, 2011 at 11:59

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