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I'm looking for a word for "how something works."

  • Ex: Scientists have only partially grasped the physiological ________ of magnetoreception in animals.
  • Ex: The _________ of neural networks in the brain is still poorly understood.

The closest I can find are "mechanisms," "function," "functioning," "operation," "role," but none of these really fit. There is a word in French, "fonctionnement," but I cannot find a direct translation.

I feel like there must be a word for this, but I have not been able to find it.

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  • fundamentals, maybe? basis? May 25, 2020 at 14:32
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    'Mechanism/s' work here. Check the second definition at Lexico, with the 'natural' option. Chemists speak of 'reaction mechanisms', the way the complex reaction (often in organic chemistry) works. I'd use the plural, indicating separate steps. May 25, 2020 at 14:35
  • @JasonBassford Indeed, that's the right tack. [Could you do me a favor and weigh in on the floating thing in ELL? Thanks.]
    – Lambie
    May 25, 2020 at 16:15

3 Answers 3

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English loves verbs (it is a verbalizing language), French loves nouns (it is a nominalizing language). Alors:

Ex: Scientists have only partially grasped the physiological ________ of magnetoreception in animals. Ex: The _________ of neural networks in the brain is still poorly understood.

would become:

Ex: Scientists have only partially grasped how the physiology of magnetoreception works in animals.

AND:

Ex: How neural networks work in the brain is still poorly understood.

That's what I would do if I were writing an English text.

[I am a French-to-English translator...if that's any consolation.]

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You could use process (per Websters:)

2 a (2): a continuing natural or biological activity or function
 // such life processes as breathing

Process works for your first example, and processes for your second example.

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The desired sense of this isn't entirely clear, but I will nonetheless convert a comment I had made under the question into an actual answer.


The first Google hit I got for a translation of fonctionnement was working:

[Merriam-Webster]
: the manner of functioning or operating : OPERATION
—usually used in plural
// the inner workings of the government

With the example sentences:

  • Scientists have only partially grasped the physiological workings of magnetoreception in animals.

  • The workings of neural networks in the brain are still poorly understood.

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  • The sense is clear if you think of it in French. le fonctionnement de machin truc.which means how something works. le fonctionnement d'une machine: how a machine works. Not the workings. That's why dictionaries do not cut the mustard here.
    – Lambie
    May 26, 2020 at 15:16
  • @Lambie I meant the desired English sense. I'm only going by the first sentence in the question, and the example English sentence with the words that were considered but rejected. (Even though the French word helps to inform any English answer. The translated version does fit, so it seemed to tick all boxes of a single drop-in word.) May 26, 2020 at 15:22
  • The person is a French-speaker. And I'd say that it is more natural here to say how x works, than the workings of x. The workings of x is not very scientific re machines or processes or network, imo. It's almost administrative sounding.
    – Lambie
    May 26, 2020 at 15:39

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