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I was writing a question on Security.SE and couldn't figure out which pronoun was actually correct in the sentence:

This [process] always ends with/in a phone call.

The intended meaning is that because of certain policies, the end result of a process is a phone call (to me).

Which preposition is correct here, and why? If they are interchangeable, why?

PS - I'm asking on ELL.SE because I would like to know how to explain this to my French ELL students in the future. Prepositions are notoriously difficult to explain...

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Yes, it is rather difficult to give definitive answers on prepositions. The answer is generally what everyone habitually uses in a particular context rather than a clear set of rules, and the habit change over time too.

Personally I would say 'ends with a phone call', and that most things are ..'with' a phone call or 'by' a phone call. E.g. Solved with a phone call, Ordered with a phone call, etc.

'In' a phone call fits better when it's something that happened during that call eg. 'I asked in a phone call', as opposed to something which results with or was a result of, a phone call. However some people would indeed say ends in a phone call, so it's not wrong really, and probably more a case of local variations of English usage.

I hope these examples give you an idea of how those prepositions commonly used, which is the probably the best way to explain them - empirically.

  • My first thought was if I hear that something always ends in X, my default assumption would be to interpret it through the "lens" of Y always ends up in X (and It'll all end in tears, obviously) - which particular construction I strongly associate with contexts where that means action Y is futile, since it always results in the undesirable end state X. – FumbleFingers Aug 16 '18 at 17:52
  • And I suppose there's certain amount of contextual influence as to whether there's a correlation, or a cause and effect relationship. Does an evening end with dinner, or end in dinner? Tears and disasters usually being an effect, where as dinner and phone calls more of a correlation? – Native English speaker Aug 16 '18 at 18:10

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