Is there anything particular unstylish about the phrase "X lies at the basis of Y"?

In this thread, some users qualify this phrase as "clumsy", without saying why. What would be the reason? (I do not have enough reputation to ask the question in a comment there)

One user offers an alternative as "X is the basis of Y". However, in my opinion there is a difference in nuance between both phrases:

"X is the basis of Y" would mean X causes Y.

On the other hand:

"X lies at the basis of Y" would mean to me that X is one of the, possibly many, main causes of Y.

For example, comparing with the literal origin: In a pyramid, a certain stone in the lowest layer lies at the bottom of the pyramid. The basis of the pyramid, however, would arguably be the whole bottom layer...?

  • 6
    Basis is the foundation of a idea or process, while base is the foundation of a building or structure. – ScotM Apr 20 '15 at 20:46
  • 3
    It is wrong because "basis" does not indicate a location. I think there may be confusion between "base" and "basis" here. – JeffSahol Apr 20 '15 at 20:47
  • There might be a case for the acceptableness of the concrete sense; dictionaries are unclear [AHDEL: 1. A foundation upon which something rests]. We need an OED investigation. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 20 '15 at 22:06
  • Indeed I have forgotten to differentiate between "basis" and "base", but the whole point is about ideas, so about the word "basis". I only used the example of the pyramid to illustrate the difference in nuance I feel there is between both phrases.Ok, I may indeed have been confused between "basis" and "base", but the whole point is about ideas, so about the word "basis". I only used the example of the pyramid to illustrate the difference in nuance – Lu Kas Apr 21 '15 at 13:04

As JeffSahol pointed out in a comment, I think the principal confusion here is the difference between base and basis.

base - the bottom or lowest part of something : the part on which something rests or is supported (M-W)

basis - something (such as an idea or set of ideas) from which another thing develops or can develop (M-W)

Base generally refers to a physical object. Basis generally refers to an idea. Similarly, lay is generally used with a physical object, and is with ideas.

So uses would be more like:

This is the basis of the electromagnetic theory of light.

The statue lies at the base of the pyramid.

These are generalizations, though. You can certainly use 'lay' with ideas ("to lie at the heart of") and could probably justify 'basis' for the bottom of a physical object (though that's a bit more of a stretch). Using both together, though, does strike me as clumsy indeed.

  • Like I mention in another comment, I meant basis indeed. But I believe the the analogy might still hold. For example: A stone lies at the base of the pyramid, but it is not the base of the pyramid; that would be the whole bottom layer. Similarly, one could say that Gauss's law lies at the basis of electromagnetism, but it is not the (whole) basis; that would be the whole set of Maxwell's laws (arguably it should be more). Or am I seeing this wrong? – Lu Kas Apr 21 '15 at 17:46
  • @LuKas It's certainly not wrong. It just feels off because 'lie' is usually used with physical position, not with ideas. As Lucky's answer mentions, the phrase certainly exists. But compared to a more idiomatic example like lie at the heart of it pales in comparison and thus feels a bit clunky to some. – Lynn Apr 21 '15 at 17:52
  • Oh, sorry. I must have read your answer too fast, because I missed the point of the "to lie" and the combination of "to lie" and "basis" being the problem. My apologies. Ok, then I understand. Thanks – Lu Kas Apr 22 '15 at 14:08

Lies at the basis is very widely used (Google Books search gives 1,420,00 results) so I wouldn't call it clumsy. Although this doesn't prove or disprove the nuances in meaning between the examples.

  • is right. If you google "at the basis of" (with the quotes), you'll see tons of examples. - - - For your question, why did some responders say it's clumsy, my guess is that they are not very widely read. Maybe they are very absorbed in a particular field of study. – aparente001 Apr 21 '15 at 6:24
  • Thanks. And so what would be your opinion on the nuance difference? Am I seeing this wrong? – Lu Kas Apr 21 '15 at 17:40
  • @LuKas The nuance difference seems plausible, because if something is a basis then that's it, this one thing is the underlying reason; if something lies at the basis, there might be other things (i.e. causes) lying there as well. But this is just a speculation and I have nothing to coroborate it with – Lucky Apr 21 '15 at 20:14
  • That was also my feeling. I chose Lynn's answer, however, because she gave the answer for the reason why people might find it feels clumsy. But your answer was also helpful. I'll try to upvote it as soon as I have enough reputation ;) – Lu Kas Apr 22 '15 at 14:12
  • @LuKas Thanks :-). I liked Lyn's answer as well, and actually voted for it myself. – Lucky Apr 22 '15 at 16:16

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