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I was wondering what one would use if they wanted to express the idea of transportation by animals and try to mimic the by/on structure. Is there a set phrase?

Here's a made up example:

Nowadays you could travel by car, plane or train but in the past people traveled on foot or [by/on animal].

I am aware of these animal-based special cases:

travel/go on horseback

travel/go by camel

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Any of the animals I can think of that you might actually use for travel in real life are basically of the horse variety (horse, camel, mule, donkey, etc.). Maybe throw elephants in there too.

For any of those, I think either

  • "by [animal]," or
  • "on a(n) [animal]"

would probably work.

You would not say travel "on donkey," though. That doesn't sound idiomatic, so it could leave a native speaker trying to come up with a weird interpretation that you didn't intend.

In the case of some other more exotic animal, while "travel by" would be grammatically correct, it's not likely to be used. For example, if I had some crazy friend that rides a Komodo dragon to school, I probably wouldn't say that my friend goes to school "by Komodo dragon" because that makes it sound too mundane, as if lots of people go to school on Komodo dragons.

However, you might read something about people traveling, for example, "by dragon" in some book where the author wants to make it sound like that's a normal occurrence in the book's universe.

As for traveling by/on "animal," that also does not sound particularly idiomatic either, though it could be correct in a certain context. Generally, just saying "animal" is a bit too vague. Since there are relatively few animals you can actually use for traveling, this phrasing might leave a reader/listener imagining that some a-typical animals are being used for travel. (The reader/listener may think that since you didn't just go ahead and say, for example, "by horse or donkey" that you must be implying that some other a-typical animals are used for travel by whomever you're talking about.)

However, if you had already introduced the ideas that a certain group of people use X, Y, and Z animals for traveling, you might get away with saying "by animal" as a shorthand for "by X, Y, and Z" later on in the text.

The other time I can think of that "by animal" might work would be if you actually did want to imply that something other than the typical group of horse-type animals were used for travel. Say, maybe you're writing a text about ancient humans who traveled around on some animal that is now extinct. You don't want to say "by horse" because it's incorrect, but you also don't want to give the scientific name of the extinct animal because it sounds clunky, and there's no colloquial name for the animal because it's extinct. So maybe then you could just say "by animal."

  • I think "travelling by bus" or "by donkey" etc. are usual. Yet "travelling on horseback" or "on foot" sound good. Not sure about the Komodo dragon - post your "snaps". – Weather Vane Jun 14 '17 at 19:11
  • Thanks for the answer and the comments. As for original question, do I take it that I cannot use the word animal itself to contrast travel by machines? i.e. "... people traveled by animal"?. If that is not possible, I guess writers would use "... people used animals for travel". – learner Jun 14 '17 at 19:29
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    @learner, Yeah, I'd say that's fair assessment. "Travel by animal" is a bit too generic to be helpful, and it doesn't sound very idiomatic to my ear. "People used animals for travel" does sound okay to me, if you were trying to be generic. – cjl750 Jun 14 '17 at 20:09
  • For the sake of other ELL learners and for a better ELL SE, the post would be of higher utility if you included the bit about using the word by animal itself in your answer. In fact it is the core of my question.I'd be happy to adopt your answer. Thanks once again. – learner Jun 15 '17 at 10:39
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    @learner I went ahead and added that. Apologies, I did not interpret your question originally as asking about the word "animal" itself. I thought you were just using it as a placeholder for any particular animal. I also revised the part about traveling "on donkey," to avoid potential confusion for future readers as per J.R.'s concern, in case they don't read the comments. – cjl750 Jun 15 '17 at 14:49

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