When meeting new people, it is common to inquire about each other’s hobbies. In such situations, you may hear someone ask another, “What are you good at?” But someone else may ask another person, “Are you any good in defense?” mid-conversation. Is it better to say “good at” or “good in”?
We use “good at” to explain that we are capable of an activity or skill in general: “I am good at soccer.” “Good in” is more specific; it means one is excellent in a particular job or setting. One can say, “I am good in defensive positions.”
We will flesh out the difference further throughout this article.
What Does “Good At” Mean?
To be “good at” something means you are skillful or successful at doing it. When speaking of a specific position or job, one may say they are “good in” it, but using the more general “good at” is more common. You may use it to answer a question directly or to describe your skillset.
“Good” is an adjective usually meaning satisfactory, pleasurable, or interesting, but in “good at,” the meaning is more akin to “successful” or “able to do something well” (source).
Following “good” with a preposition signals that one is about to describe what one can do well. You can pair “good” with several prepositions to communicate different meanings. Below is a table outlining the most likely definition of the preposition paired with “good” (source).
|at||Points to that with which someone is capable||He is good at translating.|
|in||Points to a specific task, position, or opportunity in which someone is capable||He was good in the translation class.|
|with||Points to something or someone a person is capable of using or working with||He is good with foreigners.|
|to||Points toward something someone did or said||He was good to translate for them at the hospital.|
As you can see in the table above, prepositions point or direct motion or information toward something to give more context to the rest of the sentence. Simply saying, “He is good,” is not helpful without the immediate conversational context.
So, when you say that you are “good at” something, you introduce a general statement – essentially, “I can play soccer really well.” But, if you want to be more specific by naming the job or process within a particular situation that you handle well, then you may opt for one of the following:
- I am good in defensive soccer positions when no crowd is watching the game.
- I am good in plays with lots of moving parts, but I need to practice beforehand.
How Do You Use “Good At”?
You use “good at” followed by a noun or noun phrase as an adjectival prepositional phrase to describe what one does well in general. When you wish to name a particular job or position, use “good in.” Both “good at” and “good in” are appropriate in informal conversations.
You should only use “good at” when describing something someone does or has done regularly and excels at. However, you should use “good in” to describe a particular position one does well under certain circumstances.
“Good at” is an adjective + preposition structure that is not bound by tense. Therefore, you can use it in several ways – just ensure you add whatever the person is good at after the phrase.
- Present: Billy is good at baseball.
- Past: Billy was good at baseball back then.
Since we usually use “good at” to describe something someone has done or does well regularly, making predictions of how someone will perform in future activities looks like this:
- Future: Billy will probably be good at baseball.
“Good in” is also not bound by tense and will follow these same rules.
- Present: Jenny is good in dances where the choreography is intense.
- Past: Jenny was good in the intense dance choreography today.
- Future: Jenny will probably be good in the more intense dance choreography.
When Can You Use “Good At”?
You can use “good at” when describing someone who can do something well. “Good” is a conversational adjective, so stick to using “good at” in informal conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances.
Whenever you want to praise your kids for some activity or hobby they do well, you can use “good at.” You can be as specific or general as you wish as long as you use a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause.
- Noun: You are good at climbing!
- Noun phrase: You are good at finishing your homework before dinner.
- Noun clause: You will be good at whatever you practice.
You can also use “good at” when you want to ask someone else about their hobbies in a conversation over dinner or about their skills in a semi-formal work interview. Occasionally, this will force you to put it at the end of the question.
- What kind of outdoor activities are you good at?
- What type of programming are you good at patching?
Using “Good At” in a Full Sentence
Because “good” is an adjective and “at” is a preposition that requires a noun or noun phrase to follow it, “good at” will never appear at the beginning of a sentence. However, you can sometimes put “good at” at the end of a full sentence or question.
To place “good at” as an adjective and preposition combination, follow it with a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause that names what one can do well.
- Noun: Jean is good at fishing.
- Noun phrase: Darrell is good at finding inconsistencies in code.
- Noun clause: Susan is good at whatever she sets her mind to.
You can also end a question or a sentence with “good at.” This makes “at” an adverb because a preposition must always have a noun object to point to.
- What are you good at?
- I can’t think of anything I am good at.
Treat other good + preposition combinations the same as “good at” in full sentences.
When Not to Use “Good At”
Obviously, you should avoid using “good at” to describe something you are only mediocre in. Grammatically, you should not use “good at” when discussing a one-time or irregular activity someone excelled in.
If you sat down one day and painted something incredibly smooth and balanced, you should not begin telling people that you are good at painting. Using “good at” implies that you spend a significant amount of time regularly painting and have developed a skill worth mentioning.
Likewise, suppose your toddler speaks English with clear pronunciation and intonation with you but babbles like a baby for everyone else. In that case, you should probably not say he is good at speaking English without adding another preposition to specify where, when, or with whom they speak English well.
- My son is good at speaking English with me at home.
What Can You Use Instead of “Good At”?
Informally, you can use “well at” to describe one’s actions adverbially instead of commenting on the skill itself adjectivally with “good at.” Furthermore, since “good at” is somewhat informal and unspecific, you will need to opt for less overused or more specific adjectives in semi-formal and formal contexts.
If you wish to mix up your word choice to avoid sounding repetitive, you can use “well at” in place of “good at.” Since “well” is an adverb and “good” is an adjective, they don’t modify the same type of word in the sentence.
- Ben does well at board games.
- What kinds of things do you do well at?
When being very specific about a position or describing a one-time occurrence, you can use “good in” instead of “good at.”
- Their kids were really good in the play.
- She is good in any tedious processes requiring lots of time and a steady hand.
In situations where a more specific or less overused adjective is required, you can use any of the following:
- Excellent at
- Great at
- Very skilled at
- Particularly gifted in
- Talented at
- Highly qualified to
- Well-versed in
If you’d like more information on adjective + preposition constructions, check out Beneficial for or Beneficial to: What’s the Difference?
When we attach a phrase or clause to an adjective to clarify it, the attachment is an adjective complement. “At” and “in” are not adjective complements when they follow “good” alone. They become an adjective complement when followed by a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause to complete the prepositional phrase.
There are three types of adjective complements: a prepositional phrase, a relative clause, and an infinitive clause.
A prepositional phrase (orange) begins with a preposition and ends with a noun, noun phrase, or noun clause. It is an adjective complement when it modifies an adjective (dark blue).
- Our family is good at hanging out.
A relative clause has a subject and a verb but doesn’t stand alone because it starts with a relative pronoun and describes the adjective it follows.
- It is amazing that you can’t hear me when I’m talking to you.
An infinitive clause begins with an infinitive (to + verb). Infinitive clauses that follow an adjective to describe it are adjective complements.
- I am glad to have met you!
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
You can use adjective complements to clarify your meaning, give more specific descriptions, and enrich your English.
“Good at” is more common than “good in” because it describes an activity or skill one generally excels at, while “good in” refers to a job or position in a particular situation or one-time instance.
However, both phrases have their place in informal English conversations. So, get out there and practice them until you are good at using “good at” and “good in”!