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I came across the idiom "be first in Maths". But I couldn't find any with other school subjects. Is it possible to say "be first in Geography/Physics"? Or the preposition "in" goes only whith Maths? When did this idiom "be first in Maths" come to be?

  • Using "be best in something" sounds more natural to native speakers. – Eric Cartman Apr 15 '15 at 11:50
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    "Maths" is British English. In American English it's singular, "Math". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 15 '15 at 13:21
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    It should work the same way with any school subject. Where did you come across this phrase to begin with? – Keiki Apr 15 '15 at 16:47
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    @TRomano Use of the word "first" in this context also strikes me as British English. – R Mac Apr 15 '15 at 19:54
  • @Keiki , my child's teacher told he should use "in". (we study British English) – Andorian Apr 16 '15 at 14:29
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The short answer is that it is equivalent to:

Be (ranked) first in math

And so it is possible to be first in other subjects, so long as there is some way to rank participants.

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In this situation, "Maths" is referring to the group (i.e. Maths class), not the subject of the lesson.

  • You can be first in the group - first in Maths.

  • You can be the best at the subject - best at Maths.

  • You can also be the best in the group - best in Maths.

  • But you can't be the first at the subject - first at Maths. X

The same rules apply for other classes/subjects.

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At first I thought you were right, but after that I realised that it was "first", not "good".

We do not say "be first in/at" but we say "be first for".

Definition of "for" by Dictionary.com

with the object or purpose of

e.g. to run for exercise.


be first [with what? Math.] for Math


Nevertheless, it is still possible to use in/at for similar cases.

be good at Math

your Math is good

be good in Math

you are good in Math (class/lesson)

  • As a Canadian born in Britain, for in this context sounds very foreign to me. At or in seem much more natural. – Octopus Nov 5 '15 at 6:44

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