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Is there a difference between "way of doing something" and "way to do something"?

It is on purpose that I did not write "a way of doing something" or "the way of doing something" and "a way to do something" or "the way to do something"… because I feel this is where the answer lies.

Michael Swan's Practical English Usage (third edition, page 607) reads:

After way (meaning 'method/manner') we can use an infinitive structure or of … ing. There is no important difference between the two structures. There is no way to prove / of proving that he was stealing.

I, on the other hand, think there must be a difference, however slight… !

  • "There is no important difference between the twins" means "There is a slight difference" and not "I think there is a slight difference"! And it is a difference in meaning, not in structure, since the latter is obvious! – user58319 Feb 2 '14 at 9:04
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My impression is that 'the way of doing' tends to be descriptive - i.e., a description of the current state or practice of doing something, whereas 'the way to do something' is prescriptive; there tends to be an insinuation that the listener had better do it that way.

"This is the way to do it" == Do it this way!

"This is the way of doing it" == This is how we do it. You are welcome to try another!

Apart from that 'of doing it', may be the only option when 'way' is qualified by a possessive(my/your) or by a demonstrative adjective(this/that).

  • It is that kind of intuition I had but I am not steeped in the English language enough to be able to confirm or infirm this intuition… , which is why I asked the question in the first place! – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 18:03
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    At least in modern northeastern U.S., I don't think I ever even hear people say the latter version as a full sentence, just the former. I only hear the latter (combining the definite "the" with "way of __ing") if there's an adverb or adverbial phrase narrowing the scope, e.g. "This is the way of doing it that I prefer" or "This is the harder way of doing it." On the other hand, with the indefinite article, I hear both; "This is a way of doing it" and "This is a way to do it" both sound natural to me as full sentences. – Jacob C. Nov 14 '17 at 19:17
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I agree that the Swan's "no important difference" seems to imply that there might be a minor difference. The Collins Cobuild English Usage (p765), on the other hand, is categorical:

You can talk about a way of doing something or a way to do it. There is no difference in meaning.

It continues:

Note that if you use a possessive with way, you must use 'of' and an 'ing' form after it. You do not use a 'to' infinitive: They are part of the author's way of telling his story.

  • How about "the way of doing" and "the way to do", definite articles? Is it still 'six of one, half a dozen of the other'? – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:51
  • I have just found an explanation on the Internet (www.english-test.net/forum). What do you think of it? "the way of doing something" lays emphasis on how you perform something. while "the way to do something." on how you get something or somewhere. i.e. 1. the way of making glass. 2. the way to get rich. – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:57
  • A bit like Present Perfect Continuous, "I have been repairing the car" focus(s)ing on the process, versus Present Perfect Simple, "I have repaired the car", focus(s)ing on the result. – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 17:11
  • I strongly doubt that an analysis of the two constructions in natural contexts would show enough evidence to support the claim you refer to. Both 'the best way to make glass' and 'the best way of getting rich' get hundreds of thousands of hits on Google. – Shoe Feb 1 '14 at 17:14
  • My craving for rules surrenders… – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 17:43
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Why must there be a difference - however slight? It is a difference of grammatical structure, it may be a rhythmic difference, it may be the individual preference of the writer what he prefers, but the meaning is the same.

  • This 'writer' is writing a grammar book, so if he says "no important difference" he says there "is" a difference! And his grammar book being already 658 pages long, he means that if you really want to know the difference you should go and look somewhere else, which I am doing, asking the question, and trying to answer it, or get better answers than mine… – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:14
  • Have you noticed that Michael Swan's example sentence is negative, means there is not any way, which means that the question of there being one way or more, of there being a comparison between different ways or not does not arise! I would say the sentence was carefully chosen not to contain any difference. – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:22
  • @user58319 Michael Swan is minimizing the difference. Clearly, there is at least one - X-ing vs to X -- but he's noting that they are not worth focusing on. – virmaior Feb 1 '14 at 16:25
  • It's a bit unclear whom you mean with "this writer". I take it that you mean Michael Swan and I think his book is already written. When Swan says there is no important difference then this does not mean that there is a difference in meaning. And generally one can make one mistake when writing about language: One can overcomplicate and overgrammartize language. – rogermue Feb 1 '14 at 16:28
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    I did mean Michael Swan, and he did write his grammar book long ago! Overgrammartize?! – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:39
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The "WAY" itself is a metaphor here, indicating aspects and concepts of continuity or progression. Basically, this shows that our conception of time is mostly derived from our conception of progression and thus, of space. Considering the two cases in point, I would like to suggest that this continuous aspect of information is emphasized when we use "WAY of DOING it". Therefore, this 'way of coding' information is more likely to occur in a descriptive or instructional context. It might also be experienced as less authoritarian and more cooperative than any "WAY to DO it".

"THE WAY to DO it" might as well be encountered in an instructional setting, but exudes more authority with respect to doing it the 'right' way, distinguishing that specific one from others more strongly than "THE WAY of DOING it", where the definite article will tend to draw readers' attention towards a process rather than towards a choice. An indefinite article would, conversely, in both cases suggest alternatives.

Any "WAY to DO" would, however, most likely not be descriptive while referring to aspects of progression or continuity, would it? Rather, it might refer to an isolated aspect of a process, if any process at all will be necessary, since these 'ways' are not conceptualized as metaphorical journeys, but as logical gateways. Thus, any "WAY to DO it" will tend to be result-oriented instead of process-oriented, won't it?

https://computer.howstuffworks.com/boolean.htm

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I've been reading a passage about cryptology.The author used several times a/the way of doing sth and near the end once a way to do. That made me look up on the Internet if there's a difference between the two structures.The previous answers didn't help me at all to make out the difference. Then I read again the passage ( it's from a student's book of an English course) and I'm quite sure I've done.The times when he used a/the way of doing referred to the past, while when used a/the way to do referred to the present/future. For example, he speaks about the ways of sending hidden messages used in the past and a way to send hidden messages ( meaning if you want to, now or in the future )So my opinion is a/the way of doing means the way/ways which have used, the way to do means if you want to do sth this is a way to do.

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When you use "way to do", as in "This is the way to do it!", definite article, you are thinking of different manners and of the superiority of one over the others.

When you use "way of doing", as in "There are [zero article] different ways of doing it…", or "That is a way of doing it…", indefinite article, you are not trying to compare manners, either considering one only, or not implying that one is better than the others.

Of course that simple definite/indefinite division is complicated somewhat by negatives and interrogatives: "This is not the only way of doing it." negated definite article, equals indefinite article, "There are [zero article] different ways of doing it." etc.

  • You can say "the way of doing it" just as "the way to do it." The reason we have both structures is the French and Teutonic roots of our language with one form being taken from each. Whatever differences they have are minor for nearly all purposes. – virmaior Feb 1 '14 at 16:07
  • OK, but when two, or more, structures exist, they very often specialise, with the different structures taking on different shades of meaning. Isn't it the case here? – user58319 Feb 1 '14 at 16:09
  • Having two structures can indeed make it so that each is specialized. Thus, for the same reasons, we say pork for the meat but pig for the animal (also beef / cow). But as the text you quote indicates we see these as grammatically interchangeable in most instances. In this case, they're pretty much the same. The infinitive form can be slightly less ambiguous since our present active participle has other possible meanings but save for cases where ambiguity presents itself, there is no difference. – virmaior Feb 1 '14 at 16:12
  • It is very easy to affirm some differences of things and as easily they are accepted. But it's very difficult to show that such interpretations are speculation. A language has not the same logic as mathematics. In language you can express an idea in several ways and that is very good for practical reasons of speaking. If we don't come upon the first way of saying it we have a second or a third way. – rogermue Feb 1 '14 at 16:18
  • When I read the last post I get the feeling whenever a speaker uses the word "way" he looks into a book asking what are the rules about using of + ger or to-infinitive. I don't think that language works this way. I think language here lets a choice what to choose. English is spoken by a lot of people in the world and most of them will never read or hear any rules about this problem. I might even think that the follow-up with of + ger is more frequent than the construction with to-infinitive. - PS No! According to Ngram the frequency of both constructions is the same in AmE and BrE. – rogermue Feb 1 '14 at 16:56

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