The Grammarphobia Blog

A foolish consistency?

Q: Is there a difference between “consist in” and “consist of”? If so, when do you use “in” and when do you use “of”?

A: Yes, there is a difference, but many writers, especially Americans, use “consist of” consistently, and we wouldn’t be surprised if “consist in” is eventually lost.

Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes the two verbal phrases:

To “consist of” means to “be made up or composed: New York City consists of five boroughs.

To “consist in” means to “have a basis; reside or lie: The beauty of the artist’s style consists in its simplicity.

If you find that a bit fuzzy, Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), offers a clearer explanation.

Garner explains that “consist of” is used in reference to “the physical elements that compose a tangible thing.”

“The well-worn example,” he writes, “is that concrete consists of sand, gravel, cement, and water.”

Garner says “consist in” means “to have as its essence,” and refers to “abstract elements or qualities, or intangible things.”

“Thus,” he writes, “a good moral character consists in integrity, decency, fairness, and compassion.”

As an example of “consist of” used incorrectly for “consist in,” Garner offers this  sentence written by Henry Kissinger in 1994: “The beginning of wisdom consists of recognizing that a balance needs to be struck.”

We’ll end with a brief history of the verb “consist,” which comes from the Latin consistere (to place oneself, stand still, stop, remain firm, exist).

When the verb entered English in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant to “have a settled existence, subsist, hold together, exist, be.” But these senses are now considered obsolete or archaic.

The two usages you ask about (“consist in” and “consist of”) showed up in the 16th century, but it didn’t take long for people to start using them inconsistently.

For example, the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, in translating a travel book from Portuguese into English, wrote, “The whole Revenue of the Emperor consists in Lands and Goods.”

But perhaps Johnson, like Emerson, believed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Check out our books about the English language