Of all, in all, or in ?



What are the differences between of all, in all, and in in the example:
Of all the sports in which he participated, he likes tennis less.
Can of all be replaced with in all or in? Then why?

South Korea
Posted 30 August 2002

In your sentence:

Of all the sports in which he participated, he likes tennis the less.
of all is correct.

First, less in your sentence should end with the least. Less is used in a comparative sentence, but the least is used is superlative sentences, like yours.

Next, Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 124) gives this explanation for prepositions after superlatives:

After superlatives, we do not usually use of with a singular word referring to a place or group.

I'm the happiest man in the world (NOT of the world)

She's the fastest player in the team (NOT of the team) [But it could also be "on the team" - Grammar Exchange's addition]

But of can be used before plurals, and before singular quantifiers like lot and bunch.

She's the fastest player of them all.
He's the best of the lot.

Your sentence can also be stated:

He likes tennis the least of all the sports in which he participated.

Because "sports" is a plural count noun, of is the correct preposition to use.



The choice between of and in depends on whether the two relevant nouns are of the same category when they occur in a comparative structure.

1. Of all the sports in which he participated, he likes tennis less.
2. I am the happiest man IN the world.
3. She is the fastest player IN the team.
4. She is the fastest player of them all.
5. He is the best of the lot.

S1: Tennis is a sport.
S2: A man is not the world.
S3: A player is not the team.
S4: She is a player; they are players too.

My version of explanation does not apply to sentences such as S5.

Two more simple examples:

6. Of all the students, he is the tallest.
7. He is the tallest student in his class.

Chuncan Feng

I believe that the preposition is relevant to the noun that follows it. Thus, in S1, of matches "sports," a plural count noun. In S2, the noun is "world," a singular count noun, and in is most often used with singular nouns (although with "world," of could be used, a bit more poetically). In S3, "team" is usually singular, and in or on goes with singular nouns. In S4, "them" is plural, and requires of. In 6, "students" is plural, so of is the most often used," and in 7, "class" is singular, and so would usually be preceded by in.



While I agree that the preposition is relevant to the noun that follows it, the principle of plural count nouns going with of and singular count nouns going with in with respect to the question under discussion might not apply to many sentences. There are also occasions when the preposition is relevant to the noun that precedes it.

Here are some sentences involving plural count nouns and non-count nouns:

  1. This was greedily caught up by both the political parties, who were at once struggling for power and for popular favour, and who seized, as usual, upon the most private circumstances in the lives of each other's partisans to convert them into subjects of political discussion. (lives: plural)

  2. While Mr Quilp, in his uproarious hospitality, seated himself upon an empty beer-barrel, vaunted the place as the most beautiful and comfortable in the three kingdoms, and elevating his glass, drank to their next merry-meeting in that jovial spot. (kingdoms: plural)

  3. The plan of Hawkeye is the one which has always proved the most successful in the battles between the whites and the Indians.(battles: plural)

  4. This tree is one of the most valuable in the islands of the south. (islands: plural)

  5. He was a sturdy and loyal Christian, and believed he was the best one in the land. (land: usually uncountable)

  6. To the north of the town, on a knoll, stood a large red brick house trimmed with white veranda and balconies - far and away the most pretentious house in the landscape. (landscape: uncountable)

  7. His plowshares are the best in the Punjab. (Punjab: proper noun)

Not all the above sentences bear the same sentence structures as the sentences discussed in the previous posts, but they will confuse learners of English just as those previously discussed sentences do.

With respect to the question under discussion, so far as the concurrence of of and the superlatives is concerned, such concurrence deserves further study (and more than one post) because it is far more complicated than the concurrence of in and the superlatives. I will not enter into details here presently because I have not found all its significant usage patterns yet.

To understand the complicatedness of the concurrence of of and the superlatives, interested readers may take a close look at the possessive and partitive meanings of of, which may concur with the superlatives and cannot be replaced with in (in might suggest a sense of location instead):

  1. Instead, he reloaded his revolver very carefully, and then sat in the best room of the cottage by the derelict brickfield, looking anxious and perplexed, and listening to talk about Bill and his ways, and thinking, thinking. (possessive)

  2. Some few of the best known adventures of the hero are told, though with little accuracy. (possessive)

  3. That is the most beautiful part of the whole invention. (partitive)

  4. When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were here two years ago they said this was the most interesting part of the house. (partitive)

Sometimes, the use of of is obligatory because of the preceding noun or verb which exerts its governing control, so to speak, over the of:

  1. And, indeed, as regards the working of the speculative faculty in the creation of history, it is in all respects marvellous how that the most truthful accounts of the passage from barbarism to civilisation in ancient literature come from the works of poets. (We usually say "(give) an account of something.")

  2. Having resolved, from the beginning, to make the best of the worst, it might almost be said that they were supported and consoled in their good intentions by a higher power. (We usually say "make the most (best, worst) (use) of something", a phrase derived from "make use of.")

Or because of temporal expressions like "of the day (decade, year, etc.)":

  1. It was the most stunning surprise of the decade.

  2. Just because they were so many, and all feverishly fighting to get the same things at the same time, they were all excited, happy and at ease. It was the most momentous period of the year: the height of the "dress makers' season."

  3. He was the most important capture of the day, and used with all consideration.

On the other hand, in may not be the only preposition available for the sense of location. On might be more desirable on certain occasions if one is thinking of a surface instead of the state of being inside something:

  1. His farm was one of the best on the banks of the Neshaminy, and he also enjoyed the annual interest of a few thousand dollars, carefully secured by mortgages on real estate.

There are still other occasions when of is obligatory or some other preposition might be used instead of in.

Chuncan Feng

Chuncan Feng has produced a marvelous study. Bravo!


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