The Grammarphobia Blog

Generally speaking

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “in general.” I assume “general” is the object of the preposition “in,” but can an adjective be an object? I looked up “general” but found no noun form that references generality.

A: The adverbial phrase “in general” is an idiom, a peculiarity of language that doesn’t necessarily have to make sense grammatically. In this case, though, it does.

As it turns out, there is a noun form of “general” that refers to generality, as in this example: “Politicians prefer to speak about the general, not the particular.”

Hence, we have the adverbial phrases “in general” and “in particular.”

When the word “general” showed up in English around 1200, it was an adjective describing a whole class of things or people. But by the 1300s, it was also a noun meaning a whole class of things or people.

We won’t comment here on the use of “general” in military and civilian titles. We’ve already had several posts on the subject, including one in 2012 that links to a couple of others.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “general” is derived from the Latin generalis, which means all of a whole class, but the ultimate source is a prehistoric Indo-European root that refers to producing—that is, making or creating things.

This Indo European root (gen-, gon-, gn-) was very productive itself, as Ayto points out in his dictionary.

It gave Latin genus, the source of generalis, and English (via Latin or Greek) such words as “gender,” “generate,” “generic,” “genesis,” “genital,” “genocide, and “gonorrhea” (literally, flow of semen).

In its “general” entry, the OED has a section on the use of the noun in various adverbial phrases, including “as to the general” (generally), “for the general” (for the most part), and “in the general” (generally). All those are now considered obsolete.

The adverbial phrase “in general” showed up in the 1300s, when it meant universally as well as generally, but Oxford says the universal sense is now obsolete. (In post-classical Latin, in generale or in generali meant without specific reference.)

Here’s an example of the general sense of “in general” from Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529): “Somwhat wold I speke of Luther, & his secte ingenerall.”

In the early 1500s, the phrase “in general” took on the meaning of “for the most part; as a general rule; commonly, usually,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by the monk and author William Bonde:

“I shall in general, gather certayne scrappes & cromes that holy doctors hath left behynde them in writyng.”

In contemporary English, “in general” generally means generally—that is, usually, mainly, or overall.

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