I found that it seems "a good command of" is only used for languages. To confirm that, I fulltext searched 5 dictionaries and all usages are for languages. The COCA corpus also proved that.

Is this true? If so, why? It's a little strange to me. It's like the word "red" can be only used to describe apple.

  • Some expressions only make sense in one context, or they are so often used in one context that it begins to “sound wrong” to use them in any other context. – StephenS Oct 7 '20 at 23:55
  • Very good question. As a native speaker, this surprised me too. It's definitely acceptable in other contexts (I can find some examples dealing with computer skills [not programming languages]) but it does seem to be most commonly, by far, used with languages. Looking forward to the answer! – TypeIA Oct 7 '20 at 23:57
  • She was a fast dancer with a command of music that allowed her to take extreme liberties with the tempo, but it was Rudolf who convinced her that “you can't be fast until you've learned to do things slow.” From Julie Kavanagh – Eddie Kal Oct 8 '20 at 2:44

I wouldn’t say that it’s only used for languages (though that is more often than not what it’s used for). Searching COCA for ADJ command of gave me some non-language examples:

Looking in COHA (Historical!) for the same thing, I noticed something interesting. “Good command of” has little in the way of non-language results but other adjectives have more variety. “Perfect command of” seems to have been popular in the 1800s and isn’t mainly used with languages (in this corpus). “Great command of” is mixed between language and non-language results.

You can even do the same search in EEBO for even earlier results. (I noticed this gave a lot more irrelevant results though that you have to mentally filter out.) While there are still language related results, they are much fewer. I’m also noticing a bunch of “command of oneself” results, which I guess refers to self control or something.

Therefore, it looks like there used to be more variety with the expression but it all gravitated towards using it to refer to languages. It snowballs: the more this happens, the less you’ll see it used in non-language contexts.


Searching at Google Books,
Google Books "a good command of" -language
finds a lot of uses.
Most are about languages, but a good many are about other things:
a good command of the harbor
a good command of combinations (chess)
a good command of the basic foundations of measurement theory
a good command of the subject matter
a good command of bankruptcy law.
a good command of the scientific system of the theory

It seems to be applicable to any complicated, extensive subject.

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