1: He is really good at/in/with the English language.

Which preposition goes better in the above statement?

2: He is really good at/in/with shooting.

Which preposition is the best match in the second statement?

  • 2
    Idiomatically, native speakers would normally say "He's really good at Spanish", rather than "at the Spanish language". Since that's the "idiomatic norm" for talking about language skills, if someone said "He's really good with Spanish", many of us would cast about for a possible semantic distinction based on the less-than-likely preposition - perhaps concluding that he's good at interacting with Spanish people, for example. Using in is also uncommon outside a "school lessons" context (but there it would actually be the more common choice, meaning in Spanish classes). Jun 10 '14 at 23:17
  • 1
    I would take "He's really good with Spanish" to imply some manner of ability associated with the Spanish language - translating it, perhaps; it's more commonly used to refer to ability to handle or deal with something, e.g. "He's really good with kids." The expression I would take to mean an ability to interact with Spanish people would be "He's really good with the Spanish." as we tend to say "the Spanish" or "the French" to refer to a people.
    – Pockets
    Jun 10 '14 at 23:23
  • 1
    @Samuel: That (good with Spanish = good at translating into or out of it) is certainly another possible "creative interpretation". My point is simply that there's nothing grammatically wrong with using with instead of at - but since it's not the standard usage, we tend to look for an alternative meaning (basically, anything but the standard one). Jun 11 '14 at 0:38
  • @FumbleFingers: What's wrong with 'the' English language? I remember the rule that we need to have an article before a specific noun, then why not 'the English language?'
    – Frank
    Jun 11 '14 at 0:45
  • @Frank: There's nothing at all wrong with 'the' English language. In fact, in most contexts where you're going to use the word "language" anyway, it's usually better to include the article. I'm just saying that idiomatically most native speakers would use plain English, rather than the English language in almost all contexts where your first example sentence might be used. Jun 11 '14 at 0:52

He is really good [at / in / with] English.

Which preposition you choose depends, like so many things in English, on the context and meaning you want to convey.

If you're talking about generic linguistic ability, use at. This case includes the English language, because that phrase refers to general English communication skills. When hearing good at English, people will understand that you mean good at communicating in the English language. At is more common than in or with when paired with a word like English, and it's the preposition you should choose if you really have no idea which one to use (and you have no good references to consult).

If you're talking about English as a class or school subject, use in. Good in English means doing well in the formal study of the English language. This applies when taking structured and evaluated lessons from a teacher; we wouldn't say good in English about someone who's teaching themselves as a hobby or in their spare time.

If you're talking about someone using English as a tool, use with. This one is quite rare and unlikely to see frequent (if any) use. To be good with English is to use it eloquently or deftly. For example, as a mode of translation, especially when performed by a non-native speaker or polyglot. It's possible that with English might refer to interactions with people from England, but in this case, the more correct construction is with the English.

Notice that in all of the examples, I've left off words like language and made English the sole target of the preposition. This highlights the way changing the preposition changes the meaning of the sentence, and shows how we often drop context specifying words which are (or we think should be) understood in English (i.e. in the English language). Whether you include them or not makes no difference to the choice of preposition, because you pick the preposition as if those words were in place, as they define the context. For example: he's really good at [the] English [language].

He is really good at shooting.

You've got it exactly right here. When we talk about generally performing some activity, we use at. For example, speaking, reading, and writing are the general activities in English, and we'd say someone is good at them.

Credits to FumbleFingers and Samuel Lijin for making some of these points in the question's comments.

  • I've deleted my earlier comment. Only someone with a master's degree in Nitpicking could fault the phrasing now. (And as one of the "not-too-many-cooks" involved in selecting & preparing the ingredients, I have no problem at all with the semantic content of this hearty broth! :) Jun 11 '14 at 15:45

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