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?

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    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'. Mar 13, 2017 at 17:16
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    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, 2017 at 21:11

1 Answer 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.")

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