The Grammarphobia Blog

In the loss of your father

Q: I received a puzzling example of condolence-card-speak the other day: “With Sympathy / In The Loss Of Your Father.” The use of “in” here sounds awkward. Is it grammatically correct? Or just a misprint of “in” for “on”? I’m getting sympathy. I just don’t know how.

A: The preposition “in” has been used since medieval times to mean “in regard to”—the sense it has in the sympathy card you received. We think “on” would be more natural, but versions with “in” appear to be more popular now.

Perhaps card companies believe “in” is somehow more sympathetic than “on.” American Greetings, on a web page entitled “What to write in a sympathy card,” has this model condolence message: “Sharing your sadness in the loss of sweet [Debra] and sending you comfort during this difficult time.” We’ve found similar examples on websites offering “thoughtful,” “meaningful,” and “heartfelt” condolence messages.

Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books, indicates that “in the loss of your” was slightly more popular than “on the loss of your” as of 2008, the latest searchable year. The News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, has the “in” expression appearing more than twice as often as the “on” version.

In the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “in” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Expressing reference or relation to something: In reference or regard to; in the case of, in the matter, affair, or province of.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200: “dealen in his pinen” (“to share in his pain”).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “in the loss of your” is from The Life of the Apostle St Paul, a 1653 English translation of a work by Antoine Godeau, a 17th-century French bishop, theologian, and poet.

In advising widows, Paul is quoted as saying, “you are deprived of a great support, in the loss of your husbands; but god is called the husband of Widdows, and if you put your trust in him, you will not be forsaken.”

Finally, here’s an example from a June 30, 1855, condolence letter by Charles Dickens to Mrs. Henry Winter: “I am truly grieved to hear of your affliction in the loss of your darling baby. But if you be not, even already, so reconciled to the parting from that innocent child for a little while, as to bear it gently and with a softened sorrow, I know that that not unhappy state of mind must soon arise.”

Twenty-five years earlier, Dickens had had a brief romance with Maria Beadnell, the future Mrs. Winter, but her family objected and sent her to school in Paris. Dickens is believed to have used Maria as a model for Dora, David Copperfield’s first wife.

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