Thursday, May 26, 2011

A weird grammar thought

When I tell someone "Exchange A for B," I mean that they currently have A, and they should get rid of A and instead get B. In other words, replace A with B.

I frequently see people who use the same word order, but mean the exact opposite. By "Exchange A for B," they mean replace B with A.

For example, this post at Get Rich Slowly includes the sentence "An easier solution is to schedule a résumé update every few months and edit as you go, swapping more impressive accomplishments for résumé filler." Clearly, they mean "replace filler with accomplishments." But I have trouble understanding it that way

Using "Exchange A for B" to mean "replace B with A" only works if you think it means "[Receive] A [In Exchange] for [Giving] B."

That seems a terribly circuitous and backwards construction to me. When I think of an exchange, I think of first giving someone an item, then receiving another item from them. Since giving comes first in the sequence, and A comes first in the sentence, I naturally think of giving A and receiving B. 

But really, it's no less logical to think of an exchange as first receiving an item from someone, then giving them another item. Since receiving comes first in that sequence, you'd naturally think of receiving A and giving B. But for some reason, thinking of an exchange that way feels backwards and unnatural to me.

I wonder why.

1 comment:

Rowany said...

This is an interesting question. I agree that the natural inclination is that you have A and swap with B. However, there is an inherent issue with English transitive verbs; there can be no indirect object, an unmentioned but existing one, or one of many options. Particularly with the verb exchange, where the meaning depends on if you're "swapping" or "swapping out", and with whom or what your engaging the transaction. If you tell someone to say, "exchange an Iphone for a Droid", they're not exchanging with anyone or anything so the replace A with B is clear. In the Get Rich slowly example, I would have initially read it as replacing accomplishments for filler, until I interpreted the sentence as an exchange with the resume. So, the writer has impressive accomplishments while the resume has filler; the writer "gives" the accomplishments to the resume, and "receives" the joy of not having McDonald's on the resume any longer.