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Consider the following phrases:

  1. The car was imported from Detroit.
  2. The car was exported from Detroit.
  3. The car was imported to Detroit.
  4. The car was exported to Detroit.

Are these all semantically correct? Do (1 & 2) and (3 & 4) both mean the same thing?

When using import/export, I often wonder whether or not there are subtle differences in the meanings between the two aforementioned pairs of sentences, and whether or not they are all accepted usage combinations of import/export and to/from. Instinctively, I think that one should always say 'import from' and 'export to' (1 & 4), and avoid using the structure of (2 & 3), but perhaps this is misguided.

Any clarification or scholarly references to the accepted preposition usage with import/export would be very helpful.

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    If the car was [verbed] from Detroit, that's where it was originally (to Detroit means that's where it ended up). The choice of verb (imported/exported) simply indicates whether the writer is thinking of the movement from the perspective of the sending or the receiving location (or equivalently, from the administrative perspective of either location). Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:10
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    Prepositions determine meaning. If I am in the UK, I can say "my Ford was imported from Detroit". [I am in the UK, and the Ford may have arrived from Detroit, but actually I drive MGs. Sorry.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:11
  • Can the verbs import/export apply to cities, as well as countries? If I was in Rochdale, would it be correct to say these brussel sprouts were imported from Widnes?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:32
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    It depends on whether you're in Detroit or not.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 13:08
  • @WS2: I wouldn't think Widnes is sufficiently foreign for that. Huddersfield, on the other hand... Commented Jun 14, 2015 at 13:51

2 Answers 2

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Usually (in AmE) we would not say "imported" or "exported" unless another country is involved. We "import" Edam cheese from the Netherlands. We "export" timber to Japan.

If you hear an advertisement in America about "imported from Detroit" it is a turn of phrase that simply means the car company wants you to THINK their car is as high quality as one from Germany or Japan.

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The meaning relationship of 1 and 2 is similar to that between

1'. John received a letter from Mary.
2'. Mary sent a letter to John.

There is a difference that turns up if the transaction reported on fails partially. 2' could be true if the letter was lost in the mail, yet 1' false. For your 1 and 2, suppose you're in Tokyo and you're asking your car dealer to explain why the car you ordered from Detroit hasn't arrived. The dealer tells you:

The car was exported from Detroit, but on the way here, the ship carrying it sank.

It would make less sense to say this, using the verb "imported" instead of "exported".

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