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EDIT:

Thank you everyone for the answers. The point about grammatical vs idiomatic is interesting.

To clarify, I would like to know if an average reader would a) understand the meaning of the (unidiomatic) phrase "a tableau in happiness" and b) will they read on smoothly or pause to wonder if it's an "error?" I understand that there might be no correct reader response but I'm interested in knowing where the majority would stand if they read this phrase in a published book.

------------------Original question--------------------

I'm trying to describe a scene in my novel. The characters are having a unique moment of happiness, with no words, just actions, and I want to say, "They were a perfect tableau in happiness." But it seems "tableau of" might be a more grammatical way of saying it.

Would you find it odd if you came across the phrase "a tableau in [something]?" I guess I'm trying to evoke the sense of "a study in [something]" but I'd rather use the word tableau in this story. Would it be too weird? Or just a bit weird but a reader isn't likely to think it's grammatically incorrect?

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    The words are appealing, but disregard the idea of "Show, don't tell." Writers label a scene from the outside (tell) when the scene does not already show itself clearly. Maybe the calm showed from their stillness, their serene facial expressions, slow breathing. Make us see it. Aug 13, 2023 at 17:14
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    People at this site can tell you that using in with tableau is not usual, but you already know this. Your problem is not a matter of grammar, but of whether it is worthwhile to depart from the usual way of saying things in order to accomplish the literary effect you desire. Only you, the writer, can judge that, because only you know how important the effect is in the overall context of the work.
    – jsw29
    Aug 13, 2023 at 18:58
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    The grammar is simple. A noun phrase with an attached prepositional phrase. Nothing could be more grammatical. What it means is up to the reader, but the grammar is clear. Aug 13, 2023 at 22:24
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    Would you guys take your fingers off the close button hair-trigger, please? Questions are getting summarily closed as "opinion based" when most nuanced questions having to do with English usage are going to come down to opinion on what is mainstream idiomatic usage, non-standard usage, sociolect usage, regional usage, and so on. Inane single-word requests for "the sense of disappointment/ennui you feel on an unseasonably cold day" will stay open and attract answers like flies to fish heads, but a question like this one, which wants to know whether "tableau in" would work, gets closed.
    – TimR
    Aug 14, 2023 at 18:03
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    The problem with your question, after the recent edits, is that you are essentially asking for a vote on whether this formulation would work as intended, but this site is not designed for such voting. Moreover, even if you could conduct the poll of the contributors to this site, its result may not represent how your intended audience would react to the phrase. For whatever my opinion is worth, I understood your intention to allude to study in as soon as I read the title of the question, but I have no idea of how many people would have the same reaction.
    – jsw29
    Aug 15, 2023 at 16:27

3 Answers 3

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Almost all the matches in Google Books for "a tableau of..." seem to be "a tableau of distribution" (a legal term for a list of creditors in a bankruptcy case). We don't normally qualify "type of tableau" the way OP is trying to do here.

Tableau is a relatively "literary" term that won't be familiar to everyone anyway. But what we do say is...

They were a picture of happiness.
...or more emphatically...
They were the very picture of happiness

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    Assuming that the word tableau is nevertheless to be used, would in be an acceptable proposition to use with it? So far as I understand the question, that is what the OP wants to know.
    – jsw29
    Aug 13, 2023 at 18:49
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    @jsw29 Technically, "Yes", but the use of "grammatical" indicates that the OP has only a rudimentary grasp of terms and really wants to know if the phrase is idiomatic.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 13, 2023 at 18:54
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    Yes. The OP asked if their use of 'tableau' is grammatically correct, and addressing just the grammar would be insufficient. This is a good idiomatic answer. Aug 13, 2023 at 19:18
  • @jsw29: If the word tableau is nevertheless to be used, that pretty much entails that the OP isn't a confident / articulate native speaker, in which case it's pointless responding at the "Is this syntactically valid?" level. There are no "syntactic rules" allowing or disallowing specific prepositions after tableau, and besides of and in, there's always the possibility of a tableau about [some attribute encapsulated by the tableau]. And probably other prepositions, but knowing that won't help the OP to write "good" English. Aug 13, 2023 at 20:01
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    When an artist deliberately focuses on a particular medium, or limits the palette in some way, literally with painting, or figuratively with, say, music, we can use experiment or study complemented by in. Her painting of an elderly couple is a study in gray or His partita in C-minor is an experiment in diminished fifths.
    – TimR
    Aug 14, 2023 at 18:24
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"Tableau in happiness" is not a likely combination, unless you have something special in mind: "tableau in happiness,tableau of happiness".

As the n-gram shows, the usual preposition is "of".
https://www.google.com/search?q=%22tableau%20of%20happiness%22&tbm=bks&lr=lang_en

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it seems "tableau of" might be a more grammatical way of saying it.

"grammatical" is the wrong term. You are looking for "idiomatic".

"a tableau in X" is "grammatical" but it is not idiomatic.

"a tableau of X" is "grammatical" and it is idiomatic.

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  • +1 for the needed distinction between grammatical and idiomatic.
    – TimR
    Aug 14, 2023 at 17:49

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