Focus in or Focus on: Meaning, Grammar, and Correct Usage

Imagine you are a high-school student again — your report card has just arrived. Next, you’ll hear the inevitable lecture about how you’ll need to be more focused in your studies…or is it on your studies? This confusion probably explains your B in English.

“Focus on” is correct when “focus” is a verb, usually related to an object. This is the most common usage of the phrase. The scenario’s in which “focus in” can be used correctly are largely limited to photography and the act of focusing a camera in closer on an object, or as a noun when referring to an internal element or back to the word itself.

“Focus” is a unique verb, and its usage has changed over time. To understand the nuances of the word and the correct preposition that accompanies it, keep reading.

Is It “Focus On” or “Focus In”?

To understand the difference between “focus on” and “focus in,” it is vital to understand the meanings of the prepositions “on” and “in.” A preposition is a locator of time and place; it tells us when and where something is happening (source).

“On” and “in” are both prepositions of place.

Example sentences with the preposition “in”:

  • They live in New York.
  • New Jersey is in the Mid-Atlantic region.
  • We’re going to sit in the room.

Example sentences with the preposition “on”:

  • My house is on Stafford Avenue.
  • I was sleeping on the couch.
  • The department store is on the left.

Just with the small sample set of sentences above, you can see that the usage of “in” and “on” are significantly different. 

“In” refers to something internal or inside of another object. “On” refers to the external appearance of something or the position of the subject to the object.

Once you can distinguish between those two definitions, it is easy to understand why “focus on” is generally the correct form. When you look at something, you look at the external features, unless you’ve developed some superhero level of X-ray vision. 

When “Focus in Is Correct

We only use “focus in” when “focus” is a verb referring to photography, sight, an enclosed location, or an in-depth analysis of a subject. By “focusing in” on an object, it indicates a sense of looking deeper and focusing further.

Here are a couple more example sentences where you’ll find the “in” following the word “focus”:

  • I focused in on the tiger’s striped fur, which allowed me to see more details.
  • I focused in on the pink lipstick in my bag, grabbing the tube amongst the others.

“Focus in” requires a particular scenario, and more often than not, “focus on” is the correct usage of the phrase, especially since we see the external features of something before we focus on anything more profound or internal.

“Focus” as a noun is more flexible and can take both “in” or “on.” This usage depends on referring to something internal or referring back to the word itself.

Example sentences with the preposition “in”:

  • Look at the way we use the word “focus” in this sentence.
  • The background is out of focus in this image.

These scenarios may not be the only times you have to decide between “in” and “on.” Read “In Time vs. On Time: Choosing the Right Preposition for Time” to know precisely when to use the specific preposition. 

Understanding the Meaning of “Focus On

The word “focus” can function as both a noun and a verb, although you’ll most commonly use it in its verb form (source). 

Etymology

The word “focus” originates from the Latin word “focus” used in the 1600s that meant “family hearth” or fireplace. Just as the hearth would be a gathering place for the family, food, warmth, and socialization, “focus” indicates the gathering point for sight or attention (source).

The term also has a scientific background. In the 17th century, “focus” also referred to the place where lights converged from a lens. For example, we call the convergence of rays from a magnifying glass the lens’s focus, and since the heat can set objects alight, the term “fireplace” was an appropriate synonym. 

Noun Form

As a noun, “focus” refers to the attention you give to a task or the ability to provide your full attention to something. As a noun, it sometimes takes the prepositions “on” or “in,” and this is where you are more likely to see “focus in” as it is the more common usage.

Here are some example sentences:

  • I have exams coming up; I need to give them my complete focus.
  • It’s tough to keep your focus in such a long and dreary meeting.
  • Meditation is not about mental focus; it’s about allowing your mind freedom to feel.

You can also use the word “focus” to draw attention to something. Below, you’ll find two examples highlighting this definition of the term:

  • She walked in, and all eyes were on her. She was the focus of their attention. 

In this sentence, “focus” indicates where everyone’s attention is. 

  • The government is asking for continued focus on climate change. 

In this sentence, “focus” indicates what everyone should be focusing on.

A lesser-used noun form is in the sciences when “focus” refers to the point where light or sound waves meet. For example, “The lens focus was spot-on the subject.”

Verb Form

In its verb form, “focus” has several meanings. First, it relates to cameras or eyes and the act of looking at a specific object or spot. You would usually use it to indicate a clear picture or when something has been spotted or noticed.

Here are a few examples:

  • His eyes focused on hers and narrowed.
  • The camera zoomed in and focused on the window.
  • Her eyes opened, blurry at first, but then focused on the stark white ceiling above.

Second, it means to give attention to a task or an object. Here are a few more example sentences:

  • I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I couldn’t focus in class today.
  • He focused on his page, but the letters were blurry. 
  • I need to focus on this next section as it’s very technical.

“Focus on” Synonyms

“Focus” can have some nuanced meanings, but its usage is quite simple. There are a few words that you can use instead of “focus” for different scenarios.

Center of Attention

The bulk of synonyms for “focus” are related to its noun form. When referring to “focus” as the central point of attention, then words like “focal point,” “center of attention,” and “center” are easily interchangeable synonyms.

Example sentences:

  • She was the focus of the evening’s ball.
  • She was the center of attention at the evening’s ball.

Other synonyms like “hub,” “heart,” and “nucleus” also refer to the center of something, but they have further connotations of importance, even more so than “focus.”

Example sentences:

  • The headquarters were the focus of the operation.
  • The headquarters were the nucleus of the operation. 

Using the word “nucleus” indicates the importance of something and how something could not function without it.

Clarity

“Focus” can also indicate the clarity of something, especially when viewed through a lens or microscope. Synonyms that you can use for that definition are words like “sharp,” “crisp,” “distinct,” and “clear-cut.”

Example sentences:

  • The photograph was sharp.
  • The lines of the image were beautiful and crisp.

Concentration

Also, both a noun and as a verb, “focus” has a similar meaning to words such as “emphasis,” “concentration,” “attention,” and “concern.” In some cases, the word form has to change slightly to accommodate the subject and tense.

Example noun sentences:

  • I struggled to give the work my full focus.
  • I struggled to concentrate.
  • I gave the work my full attention.

Example verb sentences:

  • I focused on the task at hand.
  • I concentrated on the task at hand.
  • I had to pay attention to this challenging task.

Now that you understand the many definitions of “focus,” that should help you understand how to use the word in a sentence correctly.

How to Use “Focus On

Generally, “focus on” is a simple-to-use phrase. Using the preposition “on,” we indicate that something is physically or figuratively on top of another object. When you use “on” before an object, the combination of both creates a prepositional phrase.

SentenceSubjectVerbPrepositional Phrase
I focused on the bigger picture. Ifocusedon the bigger picture
They need to focus on their exams.Theyfocuson their exams
Sarah gave a tight-lipped smile and then returned her focus on the game.Sarahgave AND returnedon the game

It’s important to note that the object that appears after a preposition is the preposition’s object rather than the verb’s direct object (source). 

In the final sentence, “Sarah gave a tight-lipped smile and then returned her focus on the game,” the usage of the preposition “in” instead of “on” would change the meaning of the sentence. 

When using “on,” it indicates that Sarah is watching the game. If we use the preposition “in,” it shows the reader that Sarah was part of the game, possibly as a player. In this scenario, the usage of the preposition depends on what information the sentence shares.

Another option would be “focus to” since she’s redirecting her focus toward the game.

Strong Focus In or On?

When using the adjective “strong,” it does not change the meaning of the word “focus.” Instead, the primary change is the descriptive adjective that indicates the strength of the focus. In this case, the definition of “strong” is the exertion of great force.

So the phrase “strong focus” means to focus on something in an intense manner. Between “strong focus on” and “strong focus in,” either can be correct depending on the context of the sentence.

For “strong focus in,” the phrase would have to refer to a place, item, or situation. The word “focus” is always a noun in this context.

Example sentences:

  • We found that there is a strong focus in Tokyo.
  • Employment will be a strong focus in the president’s campaign.
  • Helping teachers is a strong focus in this new research.

When using “strong focus on,” the phrase also uses “focus” as a noun. Once again, we use it to refer to common nouns.

Example sentences:

  • Our school places a strong focus on student leadership.
  • Policies have changed to place a strong focus on human rights.
  • This new phone puts a strong focus on camera technology and social media optimization.

Do We Focus In or On?

Once again, “we focus on” and “we focus in” are both correct forms of the phrase. Which one is correct depends on the context of the sentence. The collective pronoun “we” refers to a group of people or any plurality that indicates more than one person.

When using “we focus in,” the word “in” is generally part of a parenthetical statement that follows “we focus.” It is not very common to see “we focus in” as a complete part of a sentence.

Example sentences:

  • We focus, in this paper, on the role of feminism in Austen’s literature.
  • We focus in particular on the basic requirements of the role.
  • We focus in this section only on the first three stages.

While the second and third example sentences do not use commas to set off the phrases, the sentences still make sense without the words “in particular” and “in this section,” respectively.

“Focus on Me” or “Focus in Me”?

These two potential phrases only have one correct answer — “focus on me” can be the only valid form when we use it in a sentence. We use “focus” as a verb here, indicating that someone should pay attention to the speaker.

Since there are very few situations where someone would need to go inside another human to pay attention, then “focus on me” is the only correct form.

Example sentences:

I want you to focus on me for a while.

Turn the camera now and focus on me.

With too many people thinking that the world should focus on “me,” we have lost our ability to focus on “we.” We just don’t care enough about others.

“Focus in” and “me” can occur in a sentence but never as one continuous phrase, so “focus in me” is always incorrect.

Example sentences:

  • I hate it when his eye focuses in on me.
  • I looked at the photo, “This looked perfectly focused in to me.”

These different sentence types indicate that, more often than not, “focus on” is the correct form of the phrase, and you can use it without hesitation. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Many prepositions can trip you up, even when you’re a native English speaker. Read through “Beneficial for or Beneficial to: What’s the Difference?” to understand the nuances between “for” and “to.”

Final Thoughts 

The phrase “focus on” is not complex, and you use it in most sentences. When “focus” is a verb, the only time you will want to choose “focus in” instead is when you are applying it to specific scenarios where the movement is similar to “zooming in.”

So, next time you have something to pay attention to, you know that more often than not, you’ll be focusing on the situation, just as you focused on this article to learn more about the differences between “in” and “on.”

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