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What could be the meaning of 'by' in the following sentence?

My grandmother was spared the humiliation of those high, grey walls by eight or ten years.

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It probably means that the walls were torn down eight or ten years before the grandmother could have encountered them. It's like “missed it by ten feet” but in time rather than space. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 9 at 9:16
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@Bradd, or the opposite, that they weren't built until eight or ten years after the grandmother died. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 9 at 9:39

1 Answer 1

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The word "by" can be used to indicate who or what did something. For example: "The cake was baked by Doug." In this case, it was the eight or ten years that spared the speaker's grandmother from humiliation. If not for them, the speaker's grandmother could have been humiliated by the walls.

The word "by" can also be used to indicate the distance in time or space between two things. For example: "The bullet missed his head by a few inches." "He missed the bus by five minutes."

These meanings are almost identical in a construct like this where the distance in time or space between two things is itself the thing that is doing or causing something. Here's a similar construct: "The bullet just grazed his scalp. He avoided a long stay in the hospital by mere inches."

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