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Can word combination "without strain" be used in figurative sense, for example "He speaks English without strain." and is it literary?

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Anything can be literary. If you mean "is its use restricted to literary contexts", no, it's perfectly ordinary. –  StoneyB Dec 29 '12 at 16:34
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Just about anything can be used in the figurative sense in English, and I heartily encourage you to partake of this license — provided, of course, that your figures of speech are apt and not themselves strained. The one you mentioned is fine, however; that said, I still would probably have used difficulty instead of strain there.

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I think difficulty has slightly different meaning. If I'm not mistaken difficulty in this context would mean something like "I have difficulties expressing my thoughts in English", and I meant something more like "I don't have to put effort than tires me". –  elevener Dec 29 '12 at 16:08
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@elevener: Then use effortlessly. It sounds like more of what you want anyway. –  Robusto Dec 29 '12 at 16:10
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@elevener: There's no difference in the meanings of "strain" & "difficulty" in that sentence. People physically strain to do things because they're difficult to do (eg, very heavy to lift or farther away than easily within reach) & mentally strain when a problem's difficult to solve. Speaking a foreign language sometimes provides the same circumstances: makes you tired even though you know the words & how to use them. I can say the same thing about speaking English for myself: sometimes it's difficult & sometimes it's a strain, both because it's too much effort, & I'm a prolix native speaker. –  user21497 Dec 29 '12 at 16:43
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@JohnLawler: No argument about the denotations of those two words, or about the connotations most of the time: they are far from being interchangeable. But please notice that I qualified what I said with "in that sentence". They are synonymous for me in that context but not in most contexts. –  user21497 Dec 29 '12 at 17:28
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@Bill Franke: They may be "synonymous" in OP's context, but speaks English without difficulty gets 40 hits in Google Books, whereas without strain gets none at all. Somewhat surprisingly to me, effortlessly only gets 5 hits (but easily gets 247). –  FumbleFingers Dec 29 '12 at 18:32
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