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There are several Japanese books teaching Japanese students how to write in English. I found this example in 『英作文参考書の誤りを正す』 (Correcting Errors in English Composition Manuals) by Michio Kawakami and J.D. Monkman.

The authors of this book claim that this sentence is incorrect:

This box of matches is empty.

They note that a “box of matches” is a box containing matches (and not a box made for keeping matches), hence the sentence should instead be:

This matchbox is empty.

Likewise, an “empty bottle of beer” should instead be an “empty beer bottle.”

Is this actually an error that I should avoid in writing English? If so, is it a grammatical error or something else?

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    If this isn't a peeve then it must be either General Reference or it should be asked on English Language Learners Mar 22, 2014 at 2:29
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    Pedantically: It is a matchbox, not a box of matches. But, box of matches is universally understood to be a matchbox whether empty or not. Of can mean for in this sense.
    – David M
    Mar 22, 2014 at 4:25
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    Wow. Why is everybody making such a big deal about this? It's really very straightforward. The sentence is grammatical. It even makes sense. A box of matches doesn't necessarily have to have matches in it to be intended to be a box of matches.
    – Mitch
    Mar 23, 2014 at 2:25
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    I'll be the odd one out, then, and agree (in essence, though not in detail) with the author of the book. “This box of matches is empty” is obviously perfectly fine grammatically, but it is as strange semantically to me as “This bottle of beer has only milk in it” or “This plate of pancakes is served in a bowl”. It is understandable, of course, but it made me frown and threw me, too, and my immediate thought was, “Well, it's not a box of matches then, is it?”. Mar 23, 2014 at 20:39
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    It's an empty box of matches. Just as you can have a bottle of wine that no longer contains wine, or a tin of biscuits with only one biscuit, so too you can have a box of matches with no matches.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 23, 2014 at 21:22

4 Answers 4

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Most native English speakers would find nothing strange about an “empty box of matches” or an “empty bottle of beer.” They would readily interpret these phrases as a “box [for] matches” or perhaps a “bottle [previously full] of beer.”

If you pointed out that “empty matchbox” or “empty beer bottle” is preferable, a fluent English speaker might agree, or might just shrug and wonder what the big deal is about. Diction choices like this are a matter of style, and poor choices are style errors. Most rules of style are subjective, so what looks like a style error to one writer (like the authors of your reference book) might be perfectly acceptable to another. One of the functions of a style guide is to recommend specific choices for diction, spelling, punctuation, formatting, etc. to maintain a consistent style in publications.

Note that this construction is not a grammatical error, at least not as the term is used by linguists. Jeremy Butterfield aptly notes that “Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.” While linguists and other serious language enthusiasts use grammar to mean a variety of things, it generally relates to the structure of language rather than its meaning. Thus, phrases like “this serious kerfuffle of parsnips” are grammatical even though they might not make sense at all, because there's nothing wrong with the structure of the phrase. The same is true for “empty box of matches.”

All that said, many native speakers would object if you changed the example slightly:

This bottle of beer is full of milk.

We call this kind of style error a garden path sentence because readers are lured down one path (thinking that the bottle is full of beer) and then suddenly surprised by what they find at the end of the sentence (that it's actually full of milk). A garden path sentence forces the reader to suddenly re-interpret the sentence to make sense of it, often requiring a completely different parse of the grammar. For example:

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

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    +1. I hadn't thought about garden path sentences here at all, but now that you mention it, my reaction when I first read ‘empty box of matches’ was precisely a typical garden-path-sentence reaction. Mar 25, 2014 at 23:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yep. I think garden path sentence usually refers to twisted grammar rather than twisted semantics, so I'm playing a little fast and loose with the term here, but I think it fits better than anything else. Mar 25, 2014 at 23:38
  • Would you consider using [empty] 'bottle of milk' for an empty milk bottle? Apr 24, 2015 at 23:33
  • @EdwinAshworth “Empty bottle of milk” is fine. Just “bottle of milk” alone is likely to lead down the garden path unless the context makes it obvious that it’s an empty milk bottle. Apr 24, 2015 at 23:45
  • "Empty bottle of milk" sounds far from fine to my ears. A 'container of X' means a 'container with a non-zero amount of X' in my book. AHDEL has the definition: of 10. Containing or carrying: a basket of groceries. It doesn't have a definition 'designed to contain'. An empty basket of groceries? Apr 25, 2015 at 0:02
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It is grammatically correct. Some may feel it is logically incorrect, but this is mere sophistry. If a box was manufactured to hold matches, it is a matchbox, or box of matches, regardless of whether it holds 100, one, or none.

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    It may be “mere sophistry” to you, but it isn't to all of us. The phrasing actually made me pause and go “Huh?” when I read it. Mar 26, 2014 at 8:45
  • Both refer to a "box", with the word "match(es)" acting on it like an adjective; a "match box" or a "match-ish box". The weird thing about that book saying it's incorrect is that, in its language, a phrase like "match box" (technically, "match の box") is extremely common and basic grammar, and it's very easy to translate phrases like that between English and Japanese. The only question here is if, in English, it's "xy", "x y", or "y of x", and given the meaning of the two words in this case, they all would mean the same thing. Mar 27, 2014 at 12:20
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    @Panzercrisis I agree for the most part, although there are often subtle differences in English between modifier noun and noun of modifier, and this is one of those cases. It’s more obvious when you consider the “bottle of beer full of milk.” Mar 27, 2014 at 17:54
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    @VooMar You are trying to use logic to analyze a human language, but your reasoning is fallacious. The term "box of matches" is relatively common in English and has a set, well-understood, almost idiomatic meaning, whereas the term "box of steel" is in significantly less common use Sep 8, 2014 at 14:45
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    ... and a flower vase and a vase of flowers. Sep 14, 2016 at 16:41
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This box of matches is empty

The authors of the English writing guide book argue that if a box contains matches, it cannot, logically speaking, be empty. For if it is empty, it returns to its original state or function prior to it containing the matches, that is, being a box.

Allow me to illustrate by providing a more outlandish example. I have cupboards in my kitchen, in one I keep tea and coffee cups, saucers and teapots; in another there are plates and bowls of different sizes; but in one cupboard I keep only tins of tuna fish. I call it the "cupboard of tuna fish". I keep it well-stocked for months on end, until one day I decide that I am tired of eating tuna and I empty the cupboard out. Is that piece of furniture still a "cupboard of tuna fish"? Not if I fill it with pots and pans. Now the cupboard contains something completely different. I could, if I wanted to, refer to it as "that's the cupboard of pots&pans".

However, if that cupboard was manufactured and designed specifically to contain only tuna fish tins (or tuna cans/canned tuna) then it is, for all intents and purposes, a tuna fish cupboard; I could even shorten it to tuna-cupboard, and over time I could spell it as one word "tunacupboard". The noun, tuna fish (or tuna) describes the purpose or quality of the cupboard, just like a wine bottle tells us it is a bottle specifically made for wine; a can containing beer is called a beer can; a basket for carrying fruit is a fruit basket. The first noun in the following compound words can either describe a quality or the purpose/functionality of the last noun: silver photo frame; plastic shopping bag; 16GB memory card; all-in-one printer; portable air conditioner; teapot cosy (tea pot / tea-pot) ; etc.

The first noun (or nouns) in a compound word is called an adjunct noun or an attribute noun, it modifies another noun and functions as an adjective, it can be removed leaving the meaning of the second noun intact e.g A silver photo frame (a frame for photos); a photo frame (now it could be any frame); a all-in-one printer (a machine which prints texts and images on paper).

However, when faced with the term matchbox we don't normally think of it as a compound word, i.e., a box for containing matches, we see it as a single word, the union of more than onefree morpheme, otherwise known as a solid compound. In fact Online Etymology tells us that it used to be spelled match-box, and dates it back to 1786. But nowadays the spelling of matchbox is firmly established. Of course it's still "a box of matchsticks" (matchsticks = "thin sticks of wood for striking a fire".) For the authors to claim that the phrase "This box of matches is empty" is incorrect, is without doubt prescriptivism of the worst kind.

TL;DR: No, it is not a grammatical error.

Compounding and Word Division

A compound term is a combination of two or more words that, to varying degrees, have become unified in form and meaning through frequent use together. In many cases only one syllable in the compound is stressed. The trend over the years has been for the English compound to begin as two separate words, then be hyphenated and finally, if there is no structural impediment to union, become a single word written without a space or hyphen. Whatever its form, the compound frequently serves to avoid circumlocution and create a more concise style.

The existence of three different forms for compounds leads to considerable instability and variation in their presentation, and hyphenation has become one of the most controversial points of editorial style. Dictionaries vary widely in the forms they choose for specific compounds: "hot-line" in the Gage Canadian Dictionary, "hot line" in the Canadian Dictionary of the English Language and "hotline" in The Concise Oxford Dictionary, for example.

The Canadian Style: Writing Tools

Wikipedia says this on prescriptivism

Although many people would agree that some kinds of prescriptive teaching or advice are desirable, prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly regarded books like Strunk and White's Elements of Style. In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's Strictly English : the correct way to write ... and why it matters) often make basic errors in linguistic analysis

[...]

A second problem with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus, there is a tendency for prescription to be excessively conservative. When in the early 19th century, prescriptive use advised against the split infinitive, the main motivation was that this construction was not in fact a frequent feature of the varieties of English favoured by those prescribing. The prescriptive rule was based on a descriptive observation. Today the construction has become common in most varieties of English, and a prohibition is no longer supported by observation

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    I'm not happy with 'However, when faced with the term matchbox we don't normally think of it as a compound word, i.e., a box for containing matches, we see it as a single word'. Compound words are the end product (unified concept), after loose association and gradually gelling collocation. Apr 24, 2015 at 23:37
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    Take_ bull's-eye_ as an example. People would, in my estimation, rarely think back to its origins, but would rather have a mental image of a target (or success, if they think in the abstract). 'Thinking of something as a compound word' is ambiguous, as 'compound word' is itself a compound: thinking of it as a word in its own right, without worrying about its etymology, or thinking of it as being the fusion of two elements (your reading here). Tricky. I'd use say 'we don't normally think of this compound in terms of its original elements, i.e., a box for containing matches'. Apr 26, 2015 at 8:31
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    But you're right, this is really the crux of the debate: (1) How unitary is the term 'box of matches'? (2) If 'very', then is it acceptable to use it as an equivalent of 'box made to hold matches' as well as 'box containing some matches'? For many similar expressions (bottle of milk; bucket of water; pan of chips ...) the unitariness is quite high, but the 'for' reading is hardly acceptable. Apr 26, 2015 at 8:35
  • @EdwinAshworth Now, I understand your point you were making. Thank you for explaining it clearly. When I see the phrase a box of matches I think matchbox, to me they are one and the same. A "box of (for) matches" is no different to the normal "matchbox" we used to buy at the tobacconist's. It is not any sized box, although if you wanted to nitpick, I suppose it doesn't exclude that remote possibility. But in the normal world, a box of matches = a matchbox (one word, one meaning)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 26, 2015 at 8:46
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    Well thank god she keeps coffee cups in at least one of her cupboards. If no cups were involved I think this answer would explode in a fit of irony. Mar 20, 2016 at 23:53
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There are a number of distinctions to be made here.

  • 'grammatical' - this usually means that the syntax makes sense, but that semantically this may or may not be the case. In the classic sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", each word fits just fine in order, but the sentence doesn't make logical sense.

  • 'literally' - some words are used exactly as the are 'The white house needs to be whitewashed because it is dirty' or figuratively 'The White House has too many proclamations' (well the White House is white, but a house really can't speak).

  • 'of' - prepositions are notoriously slippery in English. There's an ostensible meaning, but there are just so many uses that are less central or even peripheral. One can put on ones pants, but really they're not 'on' you. People can say 'shut up' but what exactly is 'up'? 'Of' is a little more narrow, but the intention can go in many directions. It can mean ownership 'the dog of mine', or a property 'the smell of gasoline' or composition 'the house of cards', or containment 'the bucket of water', or purpose 'the house of detention'

A 'box of matches' may be literally a box made out of matches, but really here it is most naturally assumed to be a box intended as a receptacle for matches. A matchbox is another common way to say it (where 'match' is an attributive noun acting like an adjective) and it is a common pair: an X of Y <-> a Y-X (see Saxon vs Norman genitive).

So the book may be taking a very literal approach, but to a native speaker it is natural to think that a box intended for matches may not actually have any matches in it. And a very natural way to say that is 'The box of matches is empty'.

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    This is an extended version of @JamesMcLeod 's answer. I think his is best.
    – Mitch
    Mar 24, 2014 at 13:43
  • Does your mention of "shut up" in the paragraph about prepositions mean that you regard the "up" in "shut up" as a preposition? I'd have thought it's an adverb. Mar 24, 2014 at 21:34
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    @Andreas yes that was not the best choice because of that complication. 'phrasal verbs', those with unattached prepositions, the prepositions historically come from ... um ... prepositions but act more like, well not exactly prepositionally. But the literalness still stands. The point is that they're not to be taken literally.
    – Mitch
    Mar 24, 2014 at 23:08

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