Saturday 18 October 2008

On instruments

A correspondent writes to ask: 'What is the difference between The window was broken with a brick and The window was broken by a brick.

Well, not much, from the window's point of view, or the house-owner's. And semantically, in this example, most people would hardly notice a difference. But they are grammatically different. What's happening is that two usually distinct constructions are overlapping because they are following a passive verb.

Grammars typically use such terminology as 'means' or 'instrument' for the first, and 'agent' for the second. Note that they answer different questions. The instrumental sentence focuses on the means used:

'What was the window broken with? or 'How was the window broken'. Answer can be: With a brick, or - so as not to repeat the with - A brick.

The agent sentence focuses on who or what performed the action:

'Who broke the window? or, in this case, 'What broke the window?' Answer cannot be With a brick. It has to be A brick - or, of course A brick broke the window.

With and without are the primary markers of instrumentality. But an instrumental meaning is often expressed by a by-phrase, and that's where the overlap with an agentive meaning comes in. You can check for instrumentality by seeing if you can substitute by means of, using, or some such phrase.

They communicated by signs.
They communicated by means of signs.
They communicated using signs.
They communicated with signs.

Note that you can't do this the other way round: an agentive meaning can't be expressed by a with phrase.

They were driven to town by a bus.
They were driven to town by a farmer.
*They were driven to town with a bus.
*They were driven to town with a farmer.

The only interpretation you could have for the latter is: 'along with a bus/farmer'.

There's a useful discussion of these constructions in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 673ff.


Anonymous said...

Dear DC,

Don't you think that 'Break with' suggests that someone had an intention to do it while 'Break by' suggests that it was more likely to be accidental?

DC said...

Intention is a by-product of instrumentality, I think. If you are going to the trouble of mentioning the means through which something was done, then the doer is probably in the forefront of your mind. By contrast, passive agency is always optional: one can say The window was broken, without specifying an agent at all. So that construction allows an interpretation where maybe other issues than a human agent were involved, and thus permits an 'accidental' meaning.

Nataly said...

In Serbian, my native language, there's a big difference between these two sentences. It's wrong to say "with" when you mean the object, instrument. We explain that as if we say "I'm drawing with the pencil", that means "I'm drawing and the pencil is standing next to me and doing the same".

baralbion said...

This topic has prompted me to wonder about these sentences:

I am mixing the cement with a spade.
I am mixing the cement with sand.
I am mixing the cement with a friend.

The first and second answer the question ‘What are you mixing the cement with?’ but only the second could be an answer to ‘What are you mixing with the cement?’ The third answers the question ‘Who are you mixing the cement with?’ although I recognize that that could suggest foul play and that in practice it is an unlikely sentence. I imagine there is a psycholinguistic explanation for the way in which we interpret these differences of meaning.

DC said...

Yes, the notion of instrumentality is handled differently in Slavic languages.

DC said...

(baralbion) For a psycholinguistic perspective, take a look at Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, which is excellent on nuanced differences of this kind. But a good dictionary should explore the various meanings of the word with, which these sentences illustrate.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, baralbion's examples can be stacked--I am mixing the cement with sand with a spade with a friend--and sound only slightly odd. But the PPs can only come in that order. Friend must come last, or the meaning changes to possession of what follows. In fact, this sentence:

I am mixing the cement with a friend with a spade with sand

seems to be saying the friend has a spade, and the spade has sand! It's as if there were some semantic rule that after mentioning a potential actor, "with" can only mean possession.