1

In scientific papers, I read something along the lines of the following at times:

Our results on banana transmogrifation may inform studies on apple transmogrification.

Given the context, I am pretty certain that this is intended to mean:

Our results on banana transmogrifation may be provide (useful) information to people performing studies on apple transmogrification.

However, I never encountered inform in the sense of to provide information to applied to an object such as studies, that is neither a person nor an entity representing persons (such as research groups or the government) or similar and thus cannot actually digest information. The dictionaries I consulted1, 2 neither explicitly excluded such a usage nor did they give examples for it.

As all such sentences may have been written by non-native speakers of English and been missed by the copy editor, I thus want to know whether it is actually possible to use inform in this way or whether this is usage is based on a mistranslation or similar.

I am aware that inform can be used with unthinking objects when used in the meaning of to give an essential quality to or similar, but this meaning would not make the sense in the contexts I am talking about – what is “informing” can not be regarded essential in most cases.

  • 1
    Google Books claims nearly 1000 written instances of things which may inform future studies, and over 7000 that inform future research, so you might have a bit of a job convincing all of those writers that they're making a mistake. – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 19:29
  • @FumbleFingers: You might as well turn that into an answer. I considered this unsearchable as I had not expected to find that many uses of that particular sentence alone. – Wrzlprmft Apr 18 '15 at 19:52
  • As a native speaker I already knew what I expected to find in Google Books, obviously. You won't find many "prescriptivists" here on ELU willing to dispute the "validity" of constructions with even just dozens of instances in GB, let alone hundreds or thousands. It's potentially a very useful resource for you, but you need to choose search strings that will mostly reflect the exact usage you're wondering about (as opposed to different contexts, "accidental collocations", etc.). And keep an eye on the dates - some "obsolete" usages were once relatively common. – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 20:22
  • @FumbleFingers: You seem to want to solve a problem that does not exist – though I am not exactly certain what it is. Do you think that I want a prescriptivist answer? – Wrzlprmft Apr 18 '15 at 20:35
  • Not at all - I just meant that Google Books is a perfectly reasonable way of establishing whether native speakers actually use a construction or not. And bear in mind the vast majority of native speakers learn almost nothing about usage by consulting reference books - we just replicate forms we hear/read others using, and extrapolate from those using "rules, principles" that we're often not even consciously aware of. Your cited usage sounds normal enough to me, but I've no intention of looking for any specific authority to back my position there. I think those Google Books results are enough. – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 21:01
3

Try AHDEL (sense 2 below):

inform ...

v.tr.

  1. a. To impart information to; make aware of something: We were informed by mail of the change in plans. The nurse informed me that visiting hours were over.

    b. To acquaint (oneself) with knowledge of a subject.

  2. a. To give form or character to; imbue with a quality or an essence: "A society's strength is measured by ... its ability to inform a future generation with its moral standards" (Vanity Fair).

    b. To be a formative or characterizing presence in; animate: "It is this brash, backroom sensibility that informs his work as a novelist" (Jeff Shear)....

or RHK Webster's (at the same link):

inform 3. to pervade or permeate with manifest effect: A love of nature informed his writing.

  • Oh, nice find in Webster! – Dan Bron Apr 18 '15 at 19:23
  • Inform with, I have never seen that, but I suppose it makes sense! – Cerberus Apr 18 '15 at 19:45
  • I am sorry but I fail to see a big difference between the definitions you provided to the ones mentioned in the last pragaraph of my question: While inform in this meaning can be applied to unthinking objects, it also does not mean provide information anymore. – Wrzlprmft Apr 18 '15 at 19:45
  • The 'inform' used in say 'informed future studies' here means 'be a formative presence in', ie 'give rise to this sort of', 'direct', 'govern the structure of'. Another example: 'The data from the first study strongly informed future studies' {FreshQuest}. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 18 '15 at 22:38

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