Good At, Good In, and Good With

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A reader wonders about the difference between saying, “I’m good in English” and “I’m good at English”:

I always felt that there’s a different nuance there when I’m saying it. I just can’t pinpoint it exactly.

One of the numerous meanings of good is “competent, skillful, clever at or in a certain action or pursuit.”

The two expressions in the reader’s question are often used interchangeably, but generally speaking, “good at” is used with an activity:

He’s good at football.
She’s good at product design.
Her mother is good at Trivial Pursuit.
When Fatima was only six, she was good at drawing.

When it comes to school subjects, both “good at” and “good in” are used:

Jere is good at math: he always finishes first.
Jere is good in math: he makes all A’s.

It’s difficult to formulate a rule for “good in.” An actor can be “good in a role.” Someone who is “good at sex” is said to be “good in bed.” A level-headed friend is “good in an emergency.”

A similar expression used to indicate competency is “good with”:

Because Daiki is good with numbers, he plans to study accounting.
Maribel is good with children; she wants to be an elementary teacher.
Amos is good with his hands; he remodeled the entire house.
Lilah is good with money; she saves at least 40% of her allowance every week.

Here are some examples of all three expressions as used on the Web:

Michael Phelps: Good at swimming, better at golf
Why are humans and dogs so good at living together? 
School shootings: We’re good at finding fault, not so good at finding a solution
Is it true that people who are good at music can learn a language sooner?
Are you good in a crisis?
Are pit bulls good with kids?
Are you good or awful with money?

When it comes to using prepositions in idioms, memorization is often necessary.

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3 thoughts on “Good At, Good In, and Good With”

  1. Regarding ‘Good At, Good In, and Good With’.
    I suspect “Good In” fits with school subjects because it’s a shorthand way of saying “Jere is a good student in math class”, i.e. in the forum. As you said in your piece, to be good at something relates to taking action. Being “good with” places the person in the midst of the subject. You wouldn’t say “Steve is good at people” but rather “good with people”.

  2. Maybe:
    good at > activity (as stated above)
    good with > things/persons
    good in > situations
    ….but it’s true that idioms usually just need to be learned.

  3. You can actually say “He is good at people” when you mean it as understanding or knowing people.
    “I’ve always been good at people, what motivates them, what incentivizes them, what inspires them.

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