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Is this construction common/idiomatic (for native English speaker)?

Example:

He felt guilty for having used his muscles on a weak person.

I ask this because I only got 6 hits on Google. And it sounds a little strange to me, though, I can't tell why.

If that's the case, what's a better alternative?

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  • 1
    It's grammatical but not idiomatic.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 12:38
  • 3
    @DanBron Why? Sounds an everyday expression to me, though the particular example may be a bit unusual. Hey George, come and use your expertise on this conundrum.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 12:40
  • 3
    I agree with Dan Bron about it being unidiomatic. To me the sentence implies some kind of massage technique where the therapist somehow presses on the patient's body with their muscles instead of with their hands. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 12:44
  • 1
    @ws2 It is exactly those misgivings you have of "the particular example may be a bit unusual" which are precisely the why.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 12:48

2 Answers 2

16

The structure is grammatical. The sentence makes sense. This is not in question. Sometimes it is also the natural way to say something. Nobody would object to

He used his charm on her.

But I don't think most people would write

*He used his muscles on her.

That's because used his muscles is the sort of phrase that seems to require another action in there: what did he use his muscles to do? It's not a hard and fast rule, but it doesn't seem like a natural way to say what you're saying. To complicate things, muscle is sometimes used metonymically to refer to an act of (or a threat of) violence, or the thugs who perform that violence, and so you might run across phrases like "He used some muscle" or something. But "his muscles" seems to me to strictly refer to his literal body parts, and not, say, thugs in his employ.

Furthermore, strong people use their muscles "on" weak people all the time, for positive reasons, so I think it'd be better to find a different word to stand in for what he did. He used his superior strength? his might? Or rephrase the sentence to be more direct:

He felt guilty for hitting a much weaker person.

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    Maybe "He felt guilty for using his strength on her." Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 13:36
  • Although I agree that the sentence, in isolation from further context seems to signify the use of literal body parts rather than employing thugs, if not only for the reason that when used in figuratively, muscle seems be uncountable for whatever reason. However I fail to see why exactly that would require another action much more than "He felt guilty for using his fists on her" which use body-parts to imply the act of punching.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 14:58
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    Using "muscles" in this context is indeed weird, but you do sometimes hear "Used his (full) strength on..."
    – VampDuc
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 16:43
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This is not very natural to me (with one reservation, below).

It would be more common to say "X used his X to [do something]." "He felt guilty for having used his muscles to overpower a weaker person." "She felt guilty for having used her wealth to get out of trouble." "She used her charm to soothe any hard feelings." Etc.

Small reservation: "on" is not quite so out of place if you mean physically on, e.g., "the paramedic used his defibrillator on the patient." But even there I favor "to resuscitate the patient."

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