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I just realized I can't quite make out why we use the word "in." The meaning of front is generally a surface, a side - not a space you can be "in," so how did that happen? Is it an artifact of an older meaning of "front"? Was "front" also once the name of the space in front of something?

After all, "in the front" does refer to a space (I exclude "at" because "at" by nature converts an object to a location), yet particularly refers to an interior (real or abstract) space. But all you do is drop "the" and now it's an external reference. Curious.

It's so hard to Google this or search it on here because so many questions use the phrase in asking about word choices, order, etc.

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    Mainly because it's a well-established idiom. – Hot Licks Apr 11 at 12:03
  • That's why I'm asking about the past; history / origin. Today it doesn't seem to make logical sense - maybe it once did? – Rhoi Apr 12 at 5:35
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If an object is “in front of” something, it is in the space that is in front of the object. I have provided a simple diagram below to model this idea:enter image description here

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Perhaps this quote from Wiktionary will help:

At or near the front part of (something). In the presence of, in view of (someone). Not in front of the children! Located before, ahead of, previous to (someone or something). I'll take the one in front of the black one.

  • So why don't we say "in [the space] behind of"? – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 at 23:28
  • @Mari-LouA Because behind is not used as a noun except in the sense of "buttocks". I think you should have asked about "back", which is the noun opposite of "front". In fact, "in back of" is the exact opposite of "in front of" in American English. In BE, though, it has to be "at the back of" instead. So a more pertinent question would be "why don't we Brits say in back of?" – listeneva Apr 12 at 1:39
  • I'm not asking the meaning. "The meaning of front is generally a surface, a side - not a space you can be "in," "how did that happen? Is it an artifact of an older meaning of "front"? Was "front" also once the name of the space in front of something?" – Rhoi Apr 12 at 5:38
  • @listeneva at the front would be the opposite of at the back. "We were seated at the front" and "We were seated at the back". The meaning of behind is opposite to the meaning of in front of, e.g "behind the building" (outside) and "in front of the building" (outside), so that is why I mentioned "behind". I think in front of is just an idiom or fixed phrase, and there is no real or foolproof reason why "in" instead of "at" is used. If there ever was an explanation, it's forgotten now. – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 at 8:33
  • Although come to think of it, we do say in the middle of something. – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 at 8:37
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I'm basically considering this an invalid question because the premise was invalid for this particular question as asked. Although no one pointed it out, my claim on the nature of the phrase from a current perspective was seeing "front" as a noun, but that would require something like "a" or "the" - this version does exist and does mean a space as expected. Although the possibility of a noun-based origin remains, there's no difference between this and other words and phrases such as "on top" or even "beside."

I was seeing "in front of" as a unique case but it's not. This question would have to change to be about the etymology of various prepositional words and phrases in general.

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