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Please tell me the difference in nuance between the following two setences.

  1. A lot of people were killed in the war.
  2. A lot of people were killed by the war.
  • Killed in (or during) the war is more usual. However: A lot of people were traumatised by the war. – Mick Dec 23 '16 at 20:28
  • Strictly speaking, "killed by the war" means that it was the war that killed them. "Killed in the war" means that they were killed during the war (by someone or something). In practice, there is no difference in nuance. Usage of prepositions is largely a matter of convention (established usage). There is often no "why?" – Mick Dec 23 '16 at 20:29
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    If someone died of grief, then you could say that they were killed by the war (since it wasn't a soldier or bomb that killed them). – Mick Dec 23 '16 at 20:34
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    If both were talking about someone actually getting killed, I would say "by" sounds more like a civilian killed due to the war, and "in" would be a soldier serving being killed... that's just what it sounds like, to me (US Native), though. I'm not sure about the actual grammar rules – Jojodmo Dec 24 '16 at 2:53
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    @Jojodmo It's entirely usage, not grammar, and as a fellow USian that's exactly the distinction that came to my mind. – chrylis -on strike- Dec 24 '16 at 6:21
7

For whatever reason people aren't usually killed by war. They are killed (or wounded) in a war, often by enemy action.

I don't know why. Possibly because war is the result of human action, and some human is ultimately responsible. This as compared with accident or disease, for example:

He was killed by typhoid while in a prisoner-of-war camp.

They were killed by flooding after the enemy bombed the dam.

Even though "the war" was indirectly responsible, for whatever reason we don't see war as the proximate cause.

As Mick points out, in some special cases you can say "he was killed by the war" to distinguish his death from happening in the war (as a result of battle). But it's kind of a metaphorical use of the phrase, that implies war was directly responsible, when he was actually directly killed by something like grief or depression or malnutrition.

[Edit] This holds true whether you are killed "by war" or "by the war". The only difference is whether you are talking generally about "war" or about a specific, known war. It's still an unusual expression, but again, certainly possible in the right context.

"How did she die?"
"She was killed by the war."
"You mean, she died in a battle?"
"No, you see her husband was killed early on, and she just couldn't continue living without him. So, in a way, the war killed her."

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    I'm not sure of the reason for this, either, but it seems to be prepositional nomenclature that caught on around the time of World War I. Interesting ngram. – J.R. Dec 23 '16 at 20:53
  • Mr. Andrew, I'm glad to know you taught a lot of students in Japan. Thank you for your kindness. – Kenichiro Yokozawa Dec 23 '16 at 22:32
  • @KenichiroYokozawa ど いたしまして. – Andrew Dec 23 '16 at 23:06
  • ...people aren't usually killed by war... True, but they can be killed by the war. – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '16 at 5:30
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    @Mari-LouA Oh, I see what you mean. In that case the only difference is whether you are referring to generic "war" or a specific known war. It's still an unusual expression, but certainly possible in the right context. – Andrew Dec 24 '16 at 6:01
4

There is really nothing wrong with using by here. It's really just a matter of emphasis.

We customarily say

He was killed in the war.

which is shorthand for distancing the event and placing it in time, but the emphasis shifts suddenly when you say

He was killed by the war.

which suggests agency: the war is the cause of his death, and while it may not be the "proximate" cause it is undoubtedly the root cause. If there hadn't been a war there wouldn't have been a battle, say, where he took a bullet in the head. This is entirely a literal statement.

To turn that into a metaphor the war would have to be at a conceptual remove. Let's say someone drank himself to death after witnessing and participating in the horrors of war. Then it would be a bona fide metaphorical usage to say:

A: It was his alcoholism that killed him, wasn't it?
B: Actually, he was killed by the war. He never drank before he went off to fight.

4

A lot of people were killed in the war.

A lot of people participated in the war and those people who participated were killed. This would typically included combatants and those in contact with the combatants.

A lot of people were killed by the war.

This would more refer to people who weren't participating in the war, but maybe indirectly affected by it. For example, if a battle blocked access to hospitals, and civilians died as a result of not being able to get there, those civilians could be said to be killed by the war.

In the war can also refer to within the timeframe the war was happening so it's not incorrect to say civiliians were killed in the war as well.

One may want to say a soldier was killed by the war in order to give the impression the soldier didn't necessarily want to be in the war, but had to go anyway, e.g. conscription.

1

To slightly mangle an NRA slogan, "wars don't kill people; people kill people."

A war may be reasonably defined as an event where two (or more) groups of people threaten (and often, with more or less success, try) to kill each other, unless the other group of people does what they want (which, on one side, may simply be "stop trying to kill us, damnit!"). As such, people often do get killed in wars.

However, saying that someone was killed by the war is getting the cause and the effect backwards. The fact that there was a war did not cause people to die (unless they got so depressed by the war that they drank themselves to death, as in Robusto's answer, or something like that); rather, the fact that people were killed is what made the situation into a war, as opposed to just a diplomatic conflict.

In a way, saying "he was killed by the war" is wrong for much the same reason as saying "the snow fell by a blizzard" would be — it's not the blizzard that makes the snow fall, it's the snow falling that makes it a blizzard.

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