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At work, some proofreaders and I were going over a set of chapters when I came across the following sentence:

Identify whether the item in each number is a legend, superstition, or a song passed down by oral tradition.

To me, it was apparent that the preposition by was being used incorrectly in this sentence so I made the necessary corrections and changed by to from.

One proofreader contested my claim and changed from to through. The argument is that if we use from it makes the assumption that legends, superstitions, or songs are passed on directly from oral tradition instead of people. I stated that if we interpreted it that way then through would also be incorrect in that sense because it denotes movement and legends, superstitions, or songs don't pass through oral tradition in the literal sense (granted it passes through orally when spoken but still by people). Does it not already imply that people pass down these "products of oral tradition"?

In this situation, would it be better to use the preposition through or from? Or to clear up any confusion would it be better to reword the sentence to something like, "Identify whether the item in each number is a legend, superstition, or oral tradition passed down from generation to generation by making use of oral tradition.".

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Identify whether the item in each number is a legend, superstition, or a song passed down by oral tradition.

The correct preposition here is either through ("by means of") or by.

"Passed down from" would identified the original source. "This silverware was passed down from my great-grandmother."

If you wrote "passed down from oral tradition", that would mean the item was previously in oral tradition and was "passed down" in some unspecified manner to wherever it is now, and I don't think that's what you mean.

Incidentally, though it's a close call, I would favor "by" over "through". "Through" can mean "by means of", but often it just indicates the environment. The story can be "passed down through the years", but the years are not doing the passing, they are just there as the song goes by. "By" indicates means or mechanism -- or sometimes physical proximity, "We passed down by the big tree", but that's not relevant here.

  • I failed to realize when I reworded the sentence that I made us of by - only lengthening the sentence by adding making use of to it. It wasn't an apparent misuse of the word after all. I did want to denote the source in an unspecified manner (based on how the chapter was written) but I wouldn't want to intend it to mean that it was previously in oral tradition. Thanks for helping me out! – Chester Jul 27 '18 at 2:30

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