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Yesterday on the subway train, I saw two men from The US talking, and I heard, overheard actually, one of them said "She was waving a sheaf of papers", I just want to know what "papers" means exactly in daily English. Did that man mean "newspapers" or "paper documents"?

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The operative definition of sheaf here is:

: a group of things fastened together

This originally derived from the meaning a bunch of stalks and ears of grain that are tied together after being cut. A bunch of papers fastened together sort of resembled a sheaf of grain and the term was transferred.

Here is a sheaf of grain:

And here is a sheaf of papers: enter image description here

In practice, an unbound stack of papers is often referred to as a sheaf as well.

  • Very good explanation, but, I still want to know if "papers" can refer to "newspapers"? – dennylv Oct 29 '13 at 4:26
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    I realize I have only indirectly answered the meaning of papers here. But I think the use of the word sheaf (as well as the use of the plural papers) is the key to knowing that they are talking about a stack of sheet paper and not a newspaper. – Jim Oct 29 '13 at 4:27
  • Probably the only person for whom it makes sense to talk about a stack of papers and mean newspapers is the paperboy. – Jim Oct 29 '13 at 4:28
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    AND you'd never refer to a stack of newspapers as a sheaf – Jim Oct 29 '13 at 4:30
  • @Jim: Lots of people have a stack of newspapers delivered to their desk every morning who are not paperboys. For instances, ministers and journalists might have a stack of newspapers delivered to them. – Matt Oct 29 '13 at 21:26
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When I hear "a sheaf of papers," I immediately assume standard letter-sized papers – in other words, a stack of letters, or maybe ungraded exams (if the person was a teacher), or maybe documents from work.

On the other hand, if the person had newspapers, and I wanted to use the word "sheaf" for some reason (maybe this is recycling day), I could imagine myself saying "a sheaf of newspapers."

I saw Larry carrying a sheaf of newspapers down to the curb.

However, I wouldn't refer to "a sheaf of newspapers" as "a sheaf of papers." In the context of "sheaf," papers means paper documents.

Here's where it gets tricky: Yes, I can use the word paper when referring to a newspaper.

Did you see the news in today's paper?

And I can even use the papers when I'm referring to a bundle of newspapers:

Did you take the papers down to the curb yet?

And I can even refer to newspapers as papers when talking about sheafing:

Grab all of last week's papers, put them in a sheaf, and take them down to the curb.

With all that said, though, I still think I'm more likely to say sheaf of newspapers than sheaf of papers, unless there's enough surrounding context where it would be absolutely obvious what I was talking about:

Every morning, Larry gets The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor delivered to his doorstep. At the end of every week, he brings a sheaf of papers down to the curb.

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