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There are quite a few discussions online about whether one can "trawl through" or "troll through", looking for something. From what I can see, both are fishing terms so both are legitimate in particular contexts.

What I was hoping was to clarify which of the two specifically means "work hard", as in:

I had to [trawl/troll] through lots of archives to find what I wanted.

A guide I'm reading has the following phrase, which I suspect is used incorrectly:

without trolling through each script to find all the files they call

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    Now, I'd associate troll with walking, as in Tra, la! Mr 'Orn. How bona to vada your dolly old eek. Troll in!
    – TRiG
    Aug 14, 2013 at 18:58

4 Answers 4

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Trawl and troll are both fishing methods. Trolling is when you drag a line behind a slowly moving boat. Trawling is trolling with a net.

Trawling is more likely to be associated with commercial fishing and a large catch, so I would guess this would equally imply harder work than trolling, although the terms refer more to the idea of catching something than they do to how difficult that endeavor is, so either term would work in your context.

Trolling, on the other hand, can also mean baiting someone online, so it might cause confusion or have a negative connotation.

That said, I think you would be understood best if you said something like "I had to trawl each script to find the called files."

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    Trawling is dragging a net across the whole area to catch a fish. It is more applicable because the analogy is to cover all the ground to find one piece of info.
    – JamesRyan
    Aug 14, 2013 at 19:27
  • @jamesryan As a boy on the Jersey Shore, I did a lot of dragnetting (we didn't call it trawling), and the miracle was the incredible variety and number of sea creatures we would find in the net. It never occurred to me that we were seeking one thing. Panning for gold might be the better analogy for a winning script or a singular manuscript.
    – Zan700
    Apr 24, 2022 at 1:51
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"Trawl through" and "troll through" are both used in reference to looking through a collection of things (especially documents), but it's not clear if these terms mean the same thing. In particular, "troll through" gets used in two inconsistent, arguably opposite, ways.

"Trawl through"

"Trawl through", at least, is unambiguous. When you "trawl through" a collection, you are carefully going through every item to look for particular items of interest. Here are some example uses, taken from the first couple of pages of a search of Google Books, which illustrate this:

I did not have to trawl through dozens of biographies and other studies of Shakespeare in order to bring together all the different threads of his life into one volume.

I think my first acknowledgement must be to those many stallholders in antiques fairs who show endless patience as I trawl through their boxes of Shropshire cards

J. R. Hartley would not have to trawl through the shops for Flyfishing anymore as in the old Yellow Pages television advertisement. The book could be found in a few clicks of a mouse.

This matches dictionary definitions - e.g. Collins says:

If you trawl through a large number of similar things, you search through them looking for something that you want or something that is suitable for a particular purpose.

It also makes some sense etymologically. "Trawling through" documents is a metaphorical reference to trawling for fish, which involves using large nets to gather everything in a large region of water. The common feature between literal trawling for fish and metaphorical "trawling" through documents is that both are systematic and exhaustive.

"Troll through"

"Troll through" doesn't seem to have a well-established and consistent meaning. Collins does have a definition for us...

If you troll through papers or files, you look through them in a fairly casual way.

... and that definition again does make sense as a reference to a fishing method; trolling is a fishing technique that doesn't catch all fish in the area the boat passes through and is sometimes done recreationally.

The catch is that uses of "troll through" in published works don't seem to match the dictionary definition. It's a little trickier now to find examples (since most occurrences of the phrase "troll through" in published works involve the protagonists of fantasy novels impaling trolls through various body parts), but if we do Google Books searches for "troll through them" we start finding examples, some of which seem consistent (or consistent-ish) with the idea that we're talking about casual, non-exhaustive searches...

I have bookmarked a dozen or so of these aggregates and troll through them several times a week. Sometimes I am not interested in the topic the women are writing about, but I can tell how they think and write.

You can troll through them carefully. Or you can examine everything.

... but others of which seem to be using the term as a synonym for "trawl through", to describe an exhaustive search:

While the code can get all the punches and troll through them to weed out what you want, it is best to let the database handle this.

... not only gives you links to individual magazines but also presents the articles from the magazines in a unified way so that you can find information you want from many magazines, without having to troll through them individually.

It thus seems to me that, unlike "trawl through", "troll through" simply doesn't have a well-established meaning.

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I honestly can't remember ever hearing the term "trawl/troll though". Generally, I hear people say/write "go(ing) though each script".

Edit: As Kristina pointed out in a comment to this answer, "to comb through" is often used to specify checking something carefully. my guess is this stems from "To go over with a fine tooth comb".

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    . . .or to imply a very careful search, I've heard "combing through each script". Aug 14, 2013 at 17:40
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    Good catch. I've used that saying plenty of times...
    – Jacobm001
    Aug 14, 2013 at 17:42
  • You've never heard of trawling through something? It's a perfectly common, natural, even colloquial expression to me. Trolling through is not something I've heard, but trawling through, definitely. Apr 2, 2015 at 13:56
  • @Janus that is correct. I have still never heard the term.
    – Jacobm001
    Apr 2, 2015 at 15:54
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I believe that 'trawling through', as in searching through (and this can be online or in the 'real' world') is the more common term.

'Trolling through' would not be recognised by many people as a 'fishing' term unlike 'trawl'.

Also the word 'troll' has come to more recognisably mean someone who posts offensive/annoying/provocative comments online, so the use of 'trolling through' I believe would imply something more negative than simply searching.

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    It's much better not to give an unsupported answer on ELU (or indeed on any StackExchange site). These Google Ngrams seem to indicate that 'trolling through' was more commonly used than 'trawling through' for about 50% of the 20th Century. But 'trawling' is indeed the more usual choice nowadays. Apr 2, 2015 at 13:39
  • In addition this does not seem to add anything that wasn't already mentioned in Kit's answer from nearly 2 years prior.
    – TylerH
    Aug 3, 2020 at 19:20
  • You can see from Ngrams that trawling is far more common in UK English, but in the US the two are closer. So it depends where you are.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 23, 2022 at 16:58

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