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I've read The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien in Spanish but trying to answer a question about a possible typo in another StackExchange forum, I've found this text in its English original preamble

Runes were old letters originally used for cutting or scratching on wood, stone, or metal, and so were thin and angular. At the time of this tale only the Dwarves made use of them, especially for private or secret records.

I thought that in "use for", the verb use means

to put something such as a tool, skill, or building to a particular purpose

So if we used a knife to cut the steak, that knife was used for cutting. But I don't get how a letter can be used for cutting or scratching. I know that Tolkien was pointing that runes were carved on those surfaces using tools, something like

Runes were old letters that originally used to be cutted or scratched on wood, stone, etc.

but I haven't found evidence of that equivalence in online dictionaries. Maybe you can offer me some links or extra information about this.

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Native speakers do say things like that.

Day-glo colors are fast-drying paints frequently used for brushing or spraying on walls, bridges, and subway-cars.

The gerunds cutting and scratching refer to specific modes of applying glyphs to a surface, analogous to brushing or spraying.

Runes were old letters originally used for cutting or scratching on wood, stone, or metal...

I think the dissonance you sense stems from the fact that the ing-form is being used nominally and refers to a mode of application of glyphs to a surface. I imagine you'd have no problem with the following, where it is used transitively as a participle:

Day-glo colors are fast-drying paints frequently used for brushing or spraying graffiti on walls, bridges, and subway-cars.

Runes were old letters originally used for cutting or scratching words and names on wood, stone, or metal...

  • I get what you mean, you have employed good examples. But if you don't know what a rune is, there is no way of differentiate it from a knife in: a knife were used for cutting / a rune were used for cutting, isn't it? – RubioRic Oct 8 '18 at 13:14
  • True, Runes were used for cutting on wood would make you think a rune was a cutting implement of some kind. But it doesn't say that. It says Runes were letters for... – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 8 '18 at 13:27
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You are right to question the language, and your updated version is almost correct.

If it were my place to correct it, I would change it to the following:

Runes were old letters that originally used to be cut or scratched into wood, stone, etc.

Or just:

Runes were old letters originally cut or scratched into wood, stone, etc.

  • I was not sure about the past tense of "to cut". Thanks for pointing that and the right preposition. – RubioRic Oct 8 '18 at 8:50

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