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As are most United Nations events these days, the UN Conference on Climate Change in this past week was an exercise in the banal and the bizarre.

The corporate world is an exercise in the unreasonable, inept, and frequently just plain unfair.



1. "an exercise in" is this a common pattern in english? idiom?

i understand "exercise of" but not "exercise in"

e.g. We urge the exercise of patience and restraint.



2. why follow the preposition 'in' with adjectives?

the meeting was an exercise in the banal (adj after 'in')

as oppose to:

this is an exercise in the book (noun after 'in')



3. do the following also make sense?

the meeting was an exercise in the banal [ORIGINAL]

the meeting was an exercise of the banal

the meeting was an banal exercise.
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akdom
(webster)

exercise:

4 : a performance or activity having a strongly marked secondary or ulterior aspect

<party politics has always been an exercise in compromise — H. S. Ashmore>

There seems a slight difference between this example and the examples you provided. In this example, the implied ulterior motive is understood/intended/accepted by the person performing the "exercise". In your examples, it's more the opinion of the author that's being expressed.

I had a trawl around but couldn't immediately find anything more illuminating in other dictionaries. The usage you illustrated is probably less a "true" idiom, and more just an extension of the standard meaning of "exercise" into the sarcastic or ironic.

On that note, it may be worth pointing out, in case it wasn't obvious from my answer, that "an exercise in" can also be used in a literal sense without any negative connotations. For example, if a training session is described as "an exercise in teamwork", this would normally simply mean that the training session involved some tasks to do with team-building. Here, "exercise" has definition #3 at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exercise : "something performed or practiced in order to develop, improve, or display a specific capability or skill". Contrast this with "an exercise in the banal and the bizarre", which clearly does not mean that the delegates were practising being banal in order to improve their skill at it!
Comments  
1. "an exercise in" is a common English idiom. If "X is an exercise in Y" it means that Y was the real outcome or nature of X. It's often used disparagingly, and may imply that the ostensible outcome or nature was different.

2. "an exercise in" is followed by a noun: "an exercise in futility", "an exercise in stupidity" etc. In your examples, "the banal", "the unreasonable" etc. are actually behaving grammatically as nouns. You can do this with many adjectives in English; for example, "I hate the rich", "I prefer the ordinary" etc.

3. do the following also make sense?

the meeting was an exercise in the banal -- OK

the meeting was an exercise of the banal -- not natural to me -- at least, not with the same meaning

the meeting was an banal exercise. -- OK, but doesn't have quite the same connotations explained in (1).

[Edit] Sorry, overlooked the typo. It should be "the meeting was a banal exercise", but I'm sure you knew that!
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Thank you Mr. Wordy, great answer, very thorough. [Y]

Not that you have to to add more, but I'd really appreciate it if you could provide me a source/reference/definition online, an idiom dictionary site of some sort. For example, you say it's often used disparagingly. I'd really like to see it in an source, not that what you've given me isn't already perfect.

I couldn't find the idiom definition in anywhere

For "an exercise in", this is the closest I found:

(webster)

exercise:

4 : a performance or activity having a strongly marked secondary or ulterior aspect

<party politics has always been an exercise in compromise — H. S. Ashmore>
 Mr Wordy's reply was promoted to an answer.