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?
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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..."
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.
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.
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