1. Fear rises on her face
  2. Fear rises in her face
  3. She is playing in a mobile phone.
  4. She is playing on a mobile phone.

Which are correct? My grammar checking softwares says, 2nd and 4th are correct. But I believe 1st and 3rd are correct.


To be honest, neither (1) nor (2) are particularly sound. A native would say:

A look of fear appeared on her face

But "rising fear", and certainly "rising fear [on a face]" is completely unidiomatic at least to my ears.

Looking at (3) and (4), (4) means that [she] is playing a game on her phone. (3) on the other hand is meaningless, unless she has somehow become trapped within her phone and is playing a game whilst trapped - perhaps as part of a sci-fi novel.

Consequently the answer is that neither (1) or (2) are satisfactory, (3) is completely wrong and (4) is the correct way to describe someone who are using their mobile phone to play games.

  • How do you describe when a person (who is already in fear) gets more fear? – T2E Sep 1 '13 at 4:42
  • the reason I put raises because she is already in fear, but suddenly when she faces another danger "fear raises in her face". – T2E Sep 1 '13 at 4:44
  • 1
    @T2E: There isn't a simple way of saying what you want because in English we do not really talk of "fear rising". You can say "Her terror became more pronounced" or "She became even more frightened" or "Her face showed her ever-increasing fear", but "fear raises in her face" is simply not idiomatic, "normal" English. – Matt Sep 1 '13 at 6:24

I'm going to offer an answer that's a little different from Matt's – not because Matt is wrong, but because it shows there are different ways to look at this.

I have no problem with (1) or (2). English offers several ways to describe how emotions can be seen in someone's face. Here are just a few; I could find examples of all of these on-line:

Fear came over her face.
Fear washed over her face.
Fear came into her face.
Fear showed in her face.
Fear rose on her face.

Some are common enough to be considered idiomatic, but all have precedent in published works.

Point #1: There's no single way to describe how someone's face might reveal an emotion.

Next there is the issue of in vs. on. When it comes to emotions, emotions can be read both in and on someone's face. Again, there is precedent for both:

Embarrassment shone on her face.
Embarrassment shone in her face.
Joy gleamed on his face.
Joy gleamed in his face.
The fear on his face was evident.
The fear in his face was evident.

The way I read these sentences, on seems to imply a more superficial appearance than in, but that difference is both subtle and debatable. The point is: you can see something on a face (including freckles, moles, a spaghetti sauce stain – or an emotion), and you can also read an emotion in a face (but generally not freckles, moles, or spaghetti sauce).

Point #2: Prepositions are very versatile words that are flexible and sometimes have overlapping meanings.

As for (3) and (4), I echo Matt's thoughts: in is almost certainly not the right word to use (although the Tron-like scenario he's suggested shows that there's almost always a context where something that sounds wrong would be in fact acceptable). I did want to mention another preposition that could be used:

She is playing with a mobile phone.

This would mean that she has the phone in her hands, and is fiddling with it. This could refer to a toddler who is just picking it up and and pretending to talk:

She is playing with a mobile phone - one interpretation

or, in a more casual sense, it could refer to a person in a store who is considering buying a phone:

Where's Belinda?
She is playing with a mobile phone, over in electronics. I think she wants to upgrade soon.

Words like play or run have several different meanings (the word play has 30 meanings listed in Collins, e.g. – and that's just as a verb), which makes it very difficult to say which preposition is "correct," because, absent further context, the sentence can mean several different things. What if I asked: What does "Mary had a little lamb" mean? That depends on the context. I could say either of these:

Mary had a little lamb, and it followed her to school one day.
Mary had a little lamb, and, because she had eaten her broccoli, too, we let her have dessert.

See how context changes the picture?

Mary had a little lamb

Point #3: Some verbs (like had, run, and play) have many diverse meanings, and the "right" preposition(s) will depend on how you are using the word.

  • Interesting answer! +1. I'm not sure I 100% agree with the "in/on her face" bit, though; "in her face" sounds off to me. I'd accept "Fear showed in her expression" (it is an element of the expression, so it is a part of or in it). But in my opinion, for face, it's got to be on; in reads to me as inside her face, which doesn't really make much sense. Regardless, great answer; I can see where you're coming from on that point, and I think you gave a great explanation of other prepositions that might work in different situations. :) – WendiKidd Sep 1 '13 at 15:49
  • @J.R. Thanks for the excellent detail. I believe "Fear rose on her face" meaningful and valid. In my native language Tamil, I can say "Fear rose on her face" and it's valid. I don't understand why in English it's unidiomatic. But I do not see many results in google. I found 8 results though – T2E Sep 1 '13 at 19:17
  • @Wendi - Disagree with whatever percentage you'd like; I found plenty of published examples using in with face :^\ (that backslash is fear showing in the face of my emoticon) – J.R. Sep 1 '13 at 19:39
  • @J.R. Fair enough! I suppose that just proves something can be perfectly correct without sounding right to everyone :) – WendiKidd Sep 1 '13 at 21:56

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