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Many years ago I translated a document and wrote "he was assigned to an operation" (context: hospital operation, the assignee is undergoing one). An English professor who volunteered to copyedit my translation said that this was incorrect. I checked real-world usage and found that indeed, such a phrase was not used.

The question is, why is this incorrect? For example, "he was assigned to a class" is widely-used and (I assume) correct. Is it because one can only be assigned to a group? Or is there another reason?

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  • What does "operation" mean in your context? A hospital operation? Or a police operation?
    – Andrew Leach
    May 19 '14 at 9:24
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    Sorry for not clarifying. It means hospital operation.
    – Ynhockey
    May 19 '14 at 9:24
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The problem is with the preposition 'to' used in this context.

You can be assigned a duty or a task. You can be assigned to a group. You can be assigned to perform a task or duty.

It would be acceptable to say 'he was assigned an operation' or 'he was assigned to perform an operation.'

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It's not grammatically incorrect.

The are two possible reasons I can think of for your professor's comment:

  • There is some other way of expressing the idea which is standard in the healthcare profession.

  • The context made the translation of "he was assigned to an operation" too imprecise. (For instance, he was assigned to which particular medical role in the operating theatre? Or perhaps he was scheduled to have/undergo an operation?)

Unfortunately, without more information it is impossible for me to venture more than these guesses.

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  • Thanks, I have further clarified that I'm talking about a patient who was supposed to undergo an operation. The next answer already goes in this direction, but if you could add your thoughts it would be appreciated :)
    – Ynhockey
    May 19 '14 at 12:23
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I am befuddled by the amount of opinions depending on google search to figure out if the structure of a sentence is acceptable - believing if such a phrase is not found or rarely found in a google search, it must be "wrong".

For example, I cannot find a single instance of the following sentence in google. Does it mean its structure is "wrong"?
Multiply-adhered receptive media for transport of unencrypted machine control messages across the boundaries of highly mutated processes.

Anyway, you did not tell us what you meant by operation.

In the manufacturing industry there are processes. Within each process, there are individual operations. For example, the packaging operation, the cleaning operation, where an operation may be manned by an operator or technician.

Therefore, there is no disjoint in logic or grammar when

We assigned the new technician to an operation.

Let us say, it might be a military or police operation. There is nothing wrong in saying,

We had to assign experienced personnel to the operation. The operation is too critical.

However, if you had meant a mathematical or computational operation, we would have no idea what you would be trying to say,

He was assigned to the multiplication operation.

Perhaps, in a future new world order, where producing babies is part of a production line.

He was assigned to the reproduction operation.

Could you please explain what you meant by operation to avoid having us scratch our heads over this simple case?

Otherwise, there is nothing wrong in such a sentence.

Now that you have clarified it to be "hospital operation" ...

It is usual to say,

We assigned a doctor and a team of nurses to your surgical operation next week.

There are medical theses written on staff assignment to surgical procedures. Search/google for "assigning surgical operations".

It is probably presumed that we cannot logically assign a operation receiver to an operation, but than we can assign an operation or operation provider or performer to an operation.

  • We have assigned the operation to the patient.

I wish to dispute that.

  • We have assigned the new product to an existing operation.
  • We are assigning the patient to Dr Rachmat.
  • The patient has not been assigned an operation yet. We are still investigating which procedure would suit her condition best. When we have the sufficient information, we will be able to assign the patient to the appropriate surgical operation.
  • Have you figured out what is appropriate for the patient? Have you assigned the patient to an operation yet?
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  • If the person is to be operated on it would be unusual to "assign him to an operation"; it would be more usual to assign him to have an operation. (If one were to use assign which itself might be doubtful)
    – Andrew Leach
    May 19 '14 at 9:43
  • Ahem - the OP clarified the question over 15 minutes before you posted your response. :-)
    – Erik Kowal
    May 19 '14 at 9:49
  • In the simple case of knowing that a person needs a mastectomy, there is no assignment necessary. However, in some cases, doctors have to figure out which surgeries are assignable to the patient. Hence, assigning a surgery to a patient is simply the converse of assigning the patient to a surgery. May 19 '14 at 10:00
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look at the following sentence:- 'some kind of duty is assigned to a person' and 'a person is assigned to a particular duty' if the former is correct, the latter may also be correct if we think in terms of English grammar. By Tom Thomas Pulikkattu

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The construction to be assigned to X is normally used in the contexts in which it is already settled that X exists or will exist. If the existence of X is not taken for granted, we cannot speak of assigning somebody to X.

We can thus say that a student has been assigned to a particular class, but we can say that only after the class has already been placed on the relevant schedule, and it is presumed that it will proceed regardless of whether this student is assigned to it. Similarly, if it is already decided that a particular patient needs an operation, one could speak of assigning particular staff to it. Note that in this case the decision that the operation will take place preceded any assigning of the staff to it; if we hadn't decided that the patient's condition calls for the operation, there wouldn't be anything to assign anybody to.

Surgical operations are, however, never scheduled prior to there being a specific patient who needs it. One therefore never speaks of assigning a patient to an operation, because without the patient there is no operation, and without an operation there cannot be any assigning of anybody to it.

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