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In or At and the nature of relativism

On my way to work every morning I happen to pass a particular billboard expounding the services of a mortgage maid (or whatever the technical term happens to be... loan officer possibly?) On this billboard is a sad attempt at wit wherein the LO has her son standing next to her profile wearing what is presumably his Karate uniform.

Above them both, a caption reads “‘My mom is a black belt at mortgage!’”

My contention, beyond the obvious missing s from mortgage, is that “in” should replace “at”, so that it instead reads, “My mom is a black belt in mortgages!”

I realize if we somehow verbed the word mortgage (and yes, I realize verb itself isn’t a verb), we could use at in a classically technical sense. Consider “I am proficient at mortgaging” as an example. However, the idea of the classification “black belt” makes this null and void as far as I see it. Since we’re speaking of a particular class within an imagined range of expertise at a subject, then “in” becomes the default modifier regardless of a verb or noun ending.

To put it more concisely, since “black belt” is a particular class of status to the relative noun, then there is really no way to use “at” as the correct preposition.

Do I get the black belt IN grammar or am I clearly far too obsessed with this particular imagined injustice to be a well-developed individual.

Thank you in advance,


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Errr... isn't mortgage already a verb as well as a noun?

for example.. when you mortgage property, etc?

And secondly, either at or in will work in the context My mum is a blackbelt (in/at) mortages.

But you're right-it does need the plural S on mortgage.

I give you the white belt in (or at) grammar. With a bit more excercise you'll get the blackbelt.

GrammarGeek October 29, 2004, 6:26pm

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I think most English-speakers would hardly recognize a distinction between AT and IN in this context, verb or no.

davidlrattigan October 29, 2004, 11:47pm

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Grammatically speaking, I side with the two previous posters. However, I think this issue is more complicated than that. From a stylistic standpoint, I think MisterQueue is correct.

The words "black belt" are key. Compare:

My mom is a master at mortgages.
My mom is a master in mortgages.
My mom is a master of mortgages.

In this example, I think most native speakers, myself included, would use "of." "In" doesn't sound right at all, and "at" sounds a little ok.


My mom is a black belt at karate.
My mom is a black belt in karate.
My mom is a black belt of karate.

Here "of" is clearly wrong (which is why no one else mentioned it yet), although the basic structure is the same. "At" also sounds wrong to me here, although I don't think its problematic grammatically, and I do think some people would use it. I would use "in," and I think most native speakers would agree.

I'm not exactly sure why this is, but let me offer a theory: "black belt" is a specific rank (the status thing you were talking about, Q), earned in a specific discipline. In these cases, although I can think of some exceptions, "in" seems to be the most widely used preposition.

My mom is an All-Star in basketball. ("At" ok too?)
My mom is an All-Star in the NBA.
My mom is a general in the Army.
My mom is a Nobel Laureate in literature.

More food for thought:

My mom is a whiz at math. (Not a specific rank)
My mom is a doctor of philosophy. (An exception?)


Scott Livingston October 30, 2004, 1:36am

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Obviously, the important question is: is the kid wearing a pocket protector, and is he taking martial arts to defend himself against wedgies?

I say the sentence is gramatically correct when adjusted for educational level.

Sushi at October 30, 2004, 3:25am

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exactly my point but better stated.. thank you.

and sushi, I doubt it was a direct quote from the kid, but I'll be sure to go round, find him, and beat the answer out of him, or maybe I should wait till I'm upgraded from the white-belt of grammar.


MisterQueue November 1, 2004, 3:18pm

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Commerical writers who can write "authentic" children's dialogue seem to charge more money. ;-)

spaztic November 17, 2004, 9:07pm

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Actually, the "s" may not be needed. The word "mortgage" may be used as the abstract noun form of the imaginary verb "to mortgage". "My mom is a black belt in karate" is easily acceptable, becasue "karate" is an abstract noun referring to the act of practicing karate.

Nigel February 26, 2005, 2:14pm

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