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My question is about the location of "before" and "by". I am not sure which one should be close to "learn".

Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender by looking at the calendar before they are born.

My intended meaning is:

Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender by looking at the calendar. When are they trying to learn it? Before they(their babies) are born.

So, which one is better?

1-) Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender by looking at the calendar before they are born.

or

2-) Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender before they are born by looking at the calendar.

In the first sentence, "before they are born" seems to refer to "looking", not "learn". But I want it to refer to "learn", not "looking".

In the second sentence, "by looking" seems to refer to "are born" and of course, it is not my intended meaning.

Finally, which one is better? I think that they are both correct.

  • No appreciable difference in clarity since we know that before they are born must go with babies. Not quite sure what "looking at the calendar" means. Consulting the zodiac? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 28 '18 at 19:40
  • It is not clear what you mean when you say "by looking" seems to refer to "are born". There is no reference. It is trying to learn ... by looking – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 28 '18 at 19:45
  • There is a Chinese calendar including a chart with the pregnant mother's age and the month she became pregnant. They are calculating some things by that calendar and trying to understand what gender the baby will have. So anyway, I think this point is not important because it is totally superstition. However, I am really unsure about the position of "before" in the second example. It is in the middle and is a subordinate clause. It doesn't seem good to me to put subordinate clauses such as "because, before, after, if, although" in the middle of a sentence. @Tᴚoɯɐuo – Jawel Jun 28 '18 at 19:46
  • Both sentences are fine. In terms of these particular sentences, you are manufacturing an issue where none exists. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 28 '18 at 19:47
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    No, I have not. However, I came across many native speakers claiming that some ungrammatical sentences were grammatical just because they sounded good. There is no proof, no theoretical explanation, nothing. Additionally, is your being a native speaker proving that you are really right? I asked the same question in a different English forum and they are also native speakers. A british native speaker didn't like the second sentence as well. Does it mean that one of you is not a native speaker? Native speakers can make a mistake too.. – Jawel Jun 28 '18 at 20:17
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Um, why do you want to attach "by looking . . ." to "to learn . . ."? As a native speaker, I find that association to be nonsensical. You and I seem to share the opinion that no such learning occurs, that they are trying and failing, even if they don't recognize the failure. If you did somehow manage to attach "before [the babies] are born" to "to learn . . . ," wouldn't that imply that these babies are never born?

When does the learning occur? Perhaps it's just an opinion, but from this method I'd say never. When does the looking occur? Before these babies are born. When does the trying occur? At the same time as the looking, since looking at the calendar is the method of trying.

Is there a potential difference between the conditions of the calendar before and after birth? Probably not. So, "the calendar before they are born" isn't likely to be read as a coherent phrase. Is there a difference between the genders of the babies before and after birth? Again, probably not. So, "their babies' gender before they are born" isn't likely to be read as a coherent phrase. Is looking at a calendar a potential method of being born? Not according to my seventh-grade health instructor. Yet another potentially ambiguous phrasing that simply doesn't cohere.

In your example 1), "before. . ." naturally attaches to "looking . . . ." That seems quite sensible. In your example 2), "before . . ." naturally attaches to "trying . . . ." That also seems quite sensible. By the time we reach the meaning of the clause as a whole, the difference is inconsequential. Those two differently-named actions are the same event.

I like example 1) better, but that's a personal preference and a question of style. As a question of grammar and basic semantics, I don't see anything to recommend one version over the other.

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2) seems to be the closest, though I would write:

Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender before they are born by using the calendar.

using defines the means for making such decision (boy vs. girl). Of course looking at the calendar is necessary and implied in using it.

I can't form a clear idea from any of the given examples

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If OP is trying to state this more clearly:

The Chinese are trying to learn the gender of their as yet unborn babies by consulting the [zodiacal] calendar.

or

To learn the gender of their babies in utero the Chinese consult the [zodiacal] calendar.

The verb learn can mean "to discover, to find out".

OP writes in a comment:

It doesn't seem good to me to put subordinate clauses such as "because, before, after, if, although" in the middle of a sentence.

before they are born and by consulting the calendar are not the problem you believe them to be in that sentence.

Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender by looking at the calendar before they are born.

Chinese people are trying to learn their babies' gender before they are born by looking at the calendar.

The restrictions that affect placement of by looking at the calendar and before they are born have to do with semantic confusion. We move them around for the sake of clarity, not because syntax constrains their position. Both sentences are acceptable.

There is no chance that the listener will think birth is the product of consulting a calendar. How was the baby delivered? It was delivered by consulting the calendar.

There is no chance that the listener will think that people are consulting the calendar before they're even born. She was always organized, so organized in fact that she consulted the calendar before her own birth and picked a convenient day to arrive.

Semantically we connect trying to learn with by looking at the calendar (instrumental by introduces the mode or method of the attempt or effort) and we connect before they are born with babies because of the pronoun they and adjective born and we also connect it with learn because of the temporal meaning of before; we understand learn here to mean prognosticate or predict and thus before is temporally associated with the meaning of learn.

  • Is learn an idiomatic verb in this context? – Cardinal Dec 2 '18 at 23:08
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    @Cardinal: Yes, learn can be used to mean "discover, find out". google.com/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 3 '18 at 12:04

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