I am trying to justify the use of the phrase "the canal carried coal from the mountains down to the city below." A pedantic proofreader is insisting that the canal carries barges and the barges carry coal but the canal does not carry coal.

I can find lots of examples of usage online, for this and similar transitive phrases. I'm looking for evidence of correctness. Even the OED does not have an example of this type of use.

The precise usage is "[...] its goal of carrying coal from Ohio to Georgetown [...]"

For fuller context, this is for a submission to OEDILF.com , the limerick dictionary:

**C&O Canal**

Grand Old Ditch: It's a wonder, with locks
Where a barge needs a mule, not an ox,
Though it failed in its goal
Of carrying coal
From Ohio to Georgetown's old docks.

There are hundreds of similar phrases on the web, many from well-respected government or historical societies, but there are also lots of misspellings on the web...

(Added: the phrase "the railroad carried coal" is even more common, but again usage does not make correctness, or at least not quickly.)

Most dictionaries don't go into that level of detail; I checked https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carry https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/carry https://www.dictionary.com/browse/carry and others.

Referring to the OED in desperation, I found

I.i.1.a. 1348– transitive. To convey or transport (goods, people, etc.) from one place to another, esp. by means of a vehicle or vessel.

1844: Many of the men are so weak, we are obliged to carry them in wagons.

carry: I.i.13.a. 1675– transitive. Of a road, way, journey, etc.: to take or lead (a person) to or through a place. With prepositional phrase indicating the place or direction.

1675: You come to Brereton Hill..with a good Inn, whence a direct Road carrieth you to Rugeley.

1870: A by-path carried me through fields into a public road.

So a path can carry a person, but can a path carry goods?

  • 1
    Wikipedia for instance has 'The railway carried coal to power the pumping station'. The Institute of Economic Affairs Blog [29 Mar 2013] has 'In 1959 the railway carried 35.8bn passenger-km'. Seawaylogistics has 'At the height of its use, the canal carried about 400,000 tonnes of grain a day.' Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 19:55
  • I correct grammar and fact errors in Wikipedia regularly.
    – arp
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:11
  • 2
    Usage is the only guide to what's correct or allowed. It's fine, your editor is wrong, but short of a signed note from God it's not clear what authority you want. Even Strunk and White aren't trustworthy and most style guides are only opinion, you need to look at the overall body of evidence.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 21:39
  • What's unclear is whether you want support (I am trying to justify) that canals can carry freight via barges, or want to support the proofreader second-guessing the artist. I vote artist. Your limerick is funny and correct, but I don't defend the correctness of a joke. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 22:11
  • Your proofreader comment is sensible and the wording can in some way offend purists. However, it is exaggerated because the sense of your sentence is perfectly clear. To avoid criticism, just say that "the canal was used to transport coal ...".
    – Graffito
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 7:39

3 Answers 3


The broadened figurative (metonymic) usage is well attested. Some examples found in well-written articles from (in general) respected bodies:

Coal Distribution

In 1929 the canals carried 1,500,000 more tons of coal than they were carrying in 1938.

[Hansard - UK Parliament]

The Erie Canal — traditionally a tourist magnet and resource for farm irrigation systems, hydropower and drinking water — is increasingly being used to deliver cargo. In the past, 8,000 to 12,000 tons of cargo would be handled in a typical year, but last year, the canals carried 43,022 tons.

[Journal of Commerce]

...[T]he canals carried 30,082,900 bushels, or 38.72 per cent ...

[WhitfordJournal of the Canal Systems of New York]

Completed in 1816, the canal carried cotton, coal, wool, limestone, sugar and other cargo through Lancashire and Yorkshire.

[BBC News]

Initially the railway carried stone and logs from Blue Stone Quarry ....

[Case Western Reserve University_Encyclopedia of Cleveland History]

The line carried cotton, silk, coal and passengers, but always struggled to make a profit.


The tramway carried quarried granite stone from Dartmoor to Plymouth ....

[Tavistock Times Gazette]

Both the widespread systems (canals, railways) and individual routes accept the usage.

But I'd say that the greater metaphoric broadening is unusual with some transportation 'conduits':

  • The road carries almost one-fourth of all vehicle traffic in Georgia ...
  • The road carries both passenger and freight traffic.
  • ?The road carries coal from the mines in the mountains of Central Utah.

(All three examples from the internet, but the third is an outlier, the sole example in a Google search for "the road carries coal".)

There seem to be no relevant examples of "the path carries" [goods] or "the track carried coal/wool/timber/grain/gold" (and just one for "the track carried produce". "The rivers carried ..." seems very rare for loads as opposed to sediment. 'Canals' has more hint of agency, of course, being man-made.

  • The Mississippi River carries 60% of U.S. grain shipments, 22% of oil and gas shipments, and 20% of coal.[7] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_River_System
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 13:26
  • ... The point being that context often allows "shipments" to be elided without any ambiguity.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 13:45

Yes, it is a stylistic device, a bit like synecdoche.

If I say "England beat Italy 3-1", everyone knows I am talking about football and that it was not the whole countries of England and Italy that were involved, but their respective football teams.

Similarly "His brother flew to Australia last week". It should be clear to any reasonable person that his brother didn't grown wings and fly.

And "canals do carry coal". They carry lots of other things besides. These are idiomatic forms that are in everyday use.


You’re composing a limerick for crying out loud. I wonder if your pedantic proofreader would ding the one who wrote,

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

Juliet is a person, and people aren’t stars.

  • And the light doesn't actually break the window. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:12
  • I'm not trying to claim poetic license or artistic figures of speech for this usage.
    – arp
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:12
  • Break has more than one meaning documented, for example IV.21.a. a1616– To penetrate (as light breaks the darkness, sound the air).
    – arp
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:14
  • Ok, @arp, but the limerick is not a form known for rigorous strictures of stylistic “correctness.” Even without them the form is challenging enough becaof it’s intrinsic rigidity: meter, rhyme, wit, and all of that in a very small number of syllables. Your pedantic proofreader really demands too much Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:20

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