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I am trying to use the idiom "learn the ropes" in a sentence as below:

I am learning the ropes of my new job.

Somehow, this doesn't "feel" right, and I think it should be:

I am learning the ropes on my new job.

Which usage is correct/better?

An elementary internet search for usage of this idiom gives the following examples. None of them are using the idiom in the manner I described above.

  1. You'd better find someone to show you the ropes if you're going to fix the car yourself.
  2. Work slowly and cautiously until you have learned the ropes.
  3. Ruth will teach you what to do, and it shouldn't take you too long to learn the ropes.
  4. It can take quite a while for a new lawyer to learn the ropes in a big legal firm.
  5. Fabulous, now that I've learned the ropes I can take on more demanding tasks!
  6. I want you to learn the ropes before you start doing anything more sophisticated!
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Your intuition is right. The customary preposition there is “at”:

I am learning the ropes at my new job.

This search on Google Books brings up 2,700 results.

The reason for “at” is to indicate a location without regard to its shape or structure. If you imagine the job as a location, there are metaphorical “ropes” there which you have to learn. At other locations, “the ropes” are different.

It’s natural to say in or of when referring to a subject or a skill:

Very few people will help you learn the ropes in science.

Learning the ropes of science can take many years.

A job naturally has a location, but science doesn’t, so “at” would sound wrong there.

This search on Google Books brings up 7,850 results.

You can say this:

I am learning the ropes of my new job.

but it suggests that by “new job” you mean the occupation in general, not the specific place where you work. For example, you might learn the ropes of real estate by learning the ropes at Century 21. It's not wrong to say that you’re learning the ropes of Century 21, though.

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    Yep. A: I am learning the ropes. B: Where are you learning the ropes? A: At my new job. I am learning the ropes at my new job. – Adam Feb 11 '15 at 17:28
  • I would argue that "learning the ropes at..." contains two thoughts, not one, though, unlike "learning the ropes of...". "(Learn the ropes) at (the specific location you're doing that)" would be parsed the same as "(skip and jump) at (that location)", compared to, "(learning the ropes of science)", parsed the same as "(learning how to play piano)". I do agree though that the first one sounds less awkward. – neminem Feb 12 '15 at 0:35
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    So far, this seems to be the only answer to recognise multiple usages for the idiom. It not only covers the example given in my question, but also helps me figure out what I should do with a sentence like, "I am learning the ropes of painting." (?) – Masked Man Feb 12 '15 at 3:39
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(I'm not a native speaker. As follows from others' reactions, native speakers on this site clearly prefer at.)


I am learning the ropes of my new job.

..this usage seemed strange to be. I imagined some real-life ropes. But I've checked Google Books, and found several instances of the phrase being used, apparently by native English speakers:

One phase is the candidate's professional transition (learning the ropes of a new job) and the other phase is the candidate's personal transition (adjusting to life after college in a new ... (Craig Ross, ‎Brent Beggs, ‎Sarah Young - 2011)


I am learning the ropes on my new job.

Google Books attested 3 results for me. Here's one:

Learning the ropes on a new job means getting used to a new routine and meeting new people. (Laurie Nadel, ‎Judy Haims, ‎Robert Stempson - 1992)

I must point out that being attested with a meagre half-dosen results at Google Books would be highly untypical for a typical expression, so these examples might be marginal. On the other hand, I might've used some unlucky combination of search words.


Personally I would use the expression either without any prepositional phrase attached to it, like here:

You'd better find someone to show you the ropes if you're going to fix the car yourself.

.. or with a prepositional phrase that is more attached to "learn" than to "ropes":

It can take quite a while for a new lawyer to learn the ropes in a big legal firm.

or with at:

I am learning the ropes at my new job. (this way, the phrase is also clearly not attached to "ropes": at denotes location, so no ambiguity arises)


But here's one interesting Ngram:

enter image description here

Clearly of is widely used, but it must be used in ways that do not result in ambiguity. I guess the tendency is to use it with prepositional phrases denoting something abstract, some thing that cannot have literal ropes - here are Google Books examples:

And your husband or partner will be exploring his new role as a dad and learning the ropes of child care. ("Child care" cannot have real-life ropes; it's an abstract concept)

another example:

Zimin is learning the ropes of being a house church pastor. ("Being" is also a concept that cannot have real, hemp-and-tar ropes.)

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    I agree that of is the weird one. Learning the ropes is a packaged verb phrase. I am learning the ropes of my new job breaks up the package. Now you are learning something. What? The ropes of your new job. That's a fine thing to learn, but it isn't the same as "learning the ropes." Actually, my first choice would be neither of nor on but at. "Learning the ropes at" has 3,000 hits in google books. – Adam Feb 11 '15 at 17:21
  • That's a very interesting chart. And troubling. Dark forces are at work here. – Adam Feb 11 '15 at 17:34
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    @Adam - cheer up, it could be a sign of a sailing ship revival starting from about 1970. – CowperKettle Feb 11 '15 at 17:42
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    Your thoughtful analysis and Ngram got me to revise my answer to explain when “of” is appropriate. – Ben Kovitz Feb 11 '15 at 17:45
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I would use the phrase like this:

I have been in my new job for 2 weeks, I'm still learning the ropes.

and it doesn't feel natural in my speech to use the formulation you are looking for

I am learning the ropes in my new job

Varying the preposition doesn't make me feel more comfortable. For me the phrase is description of my status the whole "learning the ropes" is effectively a verb (reflexive? autocausative?) which when used with a preposition loses its unity. Hence I would say

I am new to painting, I'm still learning the ropes

However that may a matter of my personal style, and if we do want to use the prepositional form I'd suggest that we select the preposition by considering what we'd use for a simpler verb.

I am a junior doctor working in this hospital

I am a junior doctor learning the ropes in this hospital

I am engaged as a painter

I am learning the ropes as a painter

The "of" formulation, seems odd to my ears, but I must accept CopperKettle's analysis that other native English speakers do use that style. In this case the phrase seems to be focussing on "the ropes" being learned rather than the context in which the learning is happening.

  • Just a pointer: try not to use code samples for quotes! Instead, you can use the quotation box ;P – HarryCBurn Feb 11 '15 at 21:56
  • Of course, I could get around the issue by rewording the sentence, but I am interested to know what's the right usage. The example I posted is not the only possible one, I could also want to use it in other sentences such as "I am learning the ropes of/on/at(?) painting", and it is not always possible to reword it as, "I have been painting for 2 weeks, and I am still learning the ropes." – Masked Man Feb 12 '15 at 3:34
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Learning the ropes at my new job

Learning the ropes on my first day

Learning the ropes in work

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