5

How have "in + [adjective]" type expressions, such as "in general", "in common" and "in private", come into use? I'm puzzled by these expressions, because I understand that a preposition is usually followed by a noun phrase. Is it the case that there used to be a noun after the adjective, for example "in general cases", and later it was dropped?

  • 2
    Other examples are in brief, in short, in vain and in full. Most of these are close synonyms of adverbs (generally / privately / vainly), though 'commonly' is rarely used for 'in common'. Similarly, of late means 'lately', at first 'firstly', for sure / certain 'certainly'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 13 '17 at 17:16
  • 1
    Etymoline says in vain is from "c. 1300, after Latin in vanum" ; and in general is from late 1300s. French en général is attested c. 1270 (CNRTL). So Latin, French, Latin via French, may have been the source of various in + [adj.] English phrases. Others may have been fashioned after in vain, in general. – Jacinto Mar 14 '17 at 21:11
1

The examples that you give can all be extended thus:

  • in general terms
  • in common with each other
  • in private circumstances

The examples offered by Edwin Ashforth in his comment can also be easily handled in this way. Of these, "in vain" probably requires explanation: it appears to have come from French "dans une vaine tentative," literally "in a vain attempt." (The Latin for "empty" or "without substance" is "vanus.")

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.