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I would like to clarify this once and for all: What is the correct use of "consist in" vs. "consist of"?

"Meditation consists in/of attentive watchfulness."

"The body consists in/of cells."

More examples of correct and incorrect uses would be appreciated.

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Of is the correct preposition to use in your second example:

The body consists of cells.

In is the correct preposition to use in your first example:

Meditation consists in attentive watchfulness.

Consist of means to be composed or made up of, while consist in means:

To have the thing mentioned as the only or most important part.
Tolerance consists in respecting other people’s opinions.

  • 2
    How about listing the underlying ideas of a mechanism? Like, "IP networking consists [in/of] routing strategies and addressing principles" – Right leg Dec 9 '16 at 9:39
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I think both the above answers are correct, but missing a key point that 'consist of' is normally used with more tangible objects whereas 'consist in' has an esoteric quality to it. There's a good explanation here about the difference:

American writers often ignore this distinction. Consist of is used in reference to materials; it precedes the physical elements that compose a tangible thing. The well-worn example is that concrete consists of sand, gravel, cement, and water.

Consist in (= to have as its essence) refers to abstract elements or qualities or Intangible things. Thus, a good moral character consists in integrity, decency, fairness, and compassion. ...

This construction is literary in tone and is not often seen today in general writing. Sad to say, it may now seem creaky to most readers.

(Bryan Garner, Modern American Usage (3rd ed 2009), quoted in Language Usage Weblog October 1, 2009)

I have to agree about the 'creaky' bit. I didn't even know it was legitimate to say "consist in" until I saw this question, and the examples in the earlier answers sound really strange to my ears.

  • I would use this answer as the best one – Max Apr 7 '17 at 12:34
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Consist of X means made up of X, while consist in X means have X as essential feature. The meaning is slightly different. For example,

His breakfast consists of noodles, eggs and bananas.

Her music consists in inspiring others.

One would write

Meditation consists in attentive watchfulness

to mean that watchfulness is an essential feature of meditation and

The body consists of cells

to mean that cells make up the body.

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This is a belated observation, but the article was referred to in a recent Greatest hits from previous weeks newsletter, and I think this contribution might be worthwhile.

I've come across this distinction before but had forgotten it. On reading the article, one of the contributors says The well-worn example is that concrete consists of sand, gravel, cement, and water. This was the point for then giving an example of using the other form with concrete. Since the contrast wasn't made then I'll offer my own: Concrete consists in strength, durability, and mouldability.

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