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"We forced the door with a jimmy" is idiomatic whereas "The door was forced by jimmy" (Note there is no article after 'by' in this sentence) is also idiomatic. However, "We forced the door by jimmy" is not. I wonder whether one or the other is idiomatic is based on the passive-active difference. I can't assess whether the following sentences are idiomatic, as I'm a non-native speaker. If you could please help me with this, I'd be very much obliged.


[1-a] We drew lines with a straight edge.

[1-b] Lines were drawn by straight edge.


[2-a] We held the unknown object with the tongs we found in the lab.

[2-b] The unknown object was held by the tongs we found in the lab.


[3-a] We ate the beans with chopsticks.

[3-b] The beans were eaten by chopsticks.


[4-a] We cleaned the room with a broom and a mop.

[4-b] The room was cleaned by broom and mop.


[5-a] We cut the paper with such a peculiar instrument.

[5-b] The paper was cut by such a peculiar instrument.


[6-a] We measured the length of the rope with a ruler.

[6-b] The length of the rope was measured by ruler.


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By focusses the attention on the word after it. So, 3b is wrong; the beans were actually eaten by us. Similarly, 4b suggests the Sorceror's Apprentice, with a broom and mop working on their own; 1b and 6b are actually better than 1a and 6a, to my ear. –  TimLymington Jul 21 '11 at 13:15
    
@TimLymington: I don't buy your reasoning on 3b. By that logic you might just as well parse 3a to mean we ate the chopsticks as well as the beans. –  FumbleFingers Jul 21 '11 at 16:36
    
@Fumble: You are wrong. Tim is correct. This isn't an issue of logic. "The beans were eaten by chopsticks" makes it seem like the chopsticks ate the beans. This has nothing to do with 3a. –  MrHen Jul 21 '11 at 17:45
    
@MrHen: I don't get that. If logic isn't involved, we can substitute John for chopsticks; he could certainly join in the repast. –  FumbleFingers Jul 21 '11 at 18:15
    
@Fumble; It's disingenuous to assume chopsticks is the same as the chopsticks. –  TimLymington Jul 22 '11 at 8:34

2 Answers 2

"We forced the door with a jimmy" isn't really idiomatic because jimmy is a word that means:

a short crowbar used by a burglar to force open a window or door

Nothing else about the sentence is being used abnormally or in a manner that couldn't be solved by a dictionary.

Furthermore, my ear doesn't consider "we forced the door by jimmy" normal usage and it sounds funny. I have never heard it before and jimmy isn't being used in a typical sense. The more common way to say this is:

We jimmied the door

As for your list, these are the sentences I find unusual or awkward:

  • [1-b] Lines were drawn by straight edge.
  • [3-b] The beans were eaten by chopsticks.
  • [4-b] The room was cleaned by broom and mop.
  • [6-b] The length of the rope was measured by ruler.

These are all fine:

  • [1-a] We drew lines with a straight edge.
  • [2-a] We held the unknown object with the tongs we found in the lab.
  • [3-a] We ate the beans with chopsticks.
  • [4-a] We cleaned the room with a broom and a mop.
  • [5-a] We cut the paper with such a peculiar instrument.
  • [6-a] We measured the length of the rope with a ruler.
  • [2-b] The unknown object was held by the tongs we found in the lab.
  • [5-b] The paper was cut by such a peculiar instrument.
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Thanks, MrHen. How about if I use 'crowbar' instead for 'jimmy' for the sentences I used in the question? –  Sssamy Jul 21 '11 at 13:08
    
It would still seem off if you used crowbar. –  Matt Эллен Jul 21 '11 at 17:20

The basic structure here is [action] USING [implement].

It seems to me "with" can almost always substitute for "using".

I think substituting "by" becomes more acceptable the more closely the speficied action and implement are associated, provided such usage doesn't invite misinterpretation. The passive voice of OP's (b) examples could be taken to mean the implement is the active agent causing the action to take place at all, which is why these forms are probably best avoided.

(I'm not sure how to reconcile I wash my socks by hand with this position)

LATER: I'm now coming to the conclusion "by" forms are idiomatic (contrary to OP, I'm sure the "with" form are not). If nothing else, that solves the problem of how to wash my socks!

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I wonder you might still take the sentence to mean the implement after the 'by' was the active agent causing the action even if you didn't see 'a(n)' before the tool. To my non-native ear, without 'a(n)' it sounds as though it were made the noun representing the function(s) of the implement. –  Sssamy Jul 22 '11 at 11:51
    
@Sssamy: Per my "later" update, if we accept that the "by" forms are at least somewhat idiomatic, that might explain why they don't seem "quite right" to you. I'm supposing you have no such misgivings about using a, or with a (note that I think native speakers would never use by a in any of these examples). –  FumbleFingers Jul 22 '11 at 17:45
    
Thank you, FumbleFingers. I'm sorry as I am very new to this forum, and a non-native speaker, I have had a hard time following what you've kindly tried to explain to me. Are you now saying the 'with' forms are not natural at all? (clarification: I unwittingly omitted 'if' after 'wonder' in my last comment) I tried to come across the notation that I've felt "'by' + 'implement' without 'a/an'" would make itself sound like the 'implement' is not anymore a tool but it is now abstract, representing its functionality. –  Sssamy Jul 24 '11 at 1:12
    
Note your explanation before the 'later' note makes a whole lot of sense to me. I thoroughly like the idea. (I couldn't add this to my last message because the total number of letters went over the limit) –  Sssamy Jul 24 '11 at 1:25
    
@Sssamy: Well I hope my 'later' addition isn't something we need to disagree on. Idioms are usages falling outside standard grammar and/or semantic interpretation, which doesn't apply to "with" or "using". But with the "by" versions, although they are normally easy enough to understand, I think it would be hard for a non-native speaker to know which ones are grammatically acceptable (even for a native speaker, in some cases! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 24 '11 at 2:16

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