"Did sir just call me Dobby?" squeaked the elf curiously from between its fingers. Its voice was higher even than Dobby's had been, a teeny, quivering squeak of a voice, and Harry suspected -- though it was very hard to tell with a house-elf -- that this one might just be female.

"Tell with" is not a set phrase defined in the dictionaries I've looked up. So, how should we understand the "tell with" in this context? Is it a common set phrase?

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You are not parsing it correctly. A comma might have helped you there.

... hard to tell, with a house elf.

... with a house elf, hard to tell.

With the picture so dark, it's hard to tell who this is.

I can't say who that is. It's hard to tell with the picture being so dark.

or

Is that a female or a male crocodile sunning on the bank?
-- I'm not sure. It's hard to tell with a crocodile. But that's a male chimp over there, and over yonder is a female.
You're right. With a crocodile it's hard to tell, and it's easy to tell with a chimp.

  • A comma would help with the parsing, but would read incorrectly since a pause at that point is not how Harry would have said it (aloud or in his thoughts), so on the whole the comma would be wrong to include here. – KRyan Dec 7 at 13:27
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    @KRyan: I'd have to disagree, as it's up to Harry's author to decide how long a pause there might be there. Punctuation in a literary work presenting direct speech is always a dicey affair, a balancing act, and "correct/incorrect" simply do not apply in many instances involving commas. One would have liberty to write It's hard to tell, with crocodiles. or It's hard to tell with crocodiles or even It's hard to tell—with crocodiles. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 at 13:50
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    A reader could come away thinking that your answer is saying that a comma "should" be there, so there is some value in making it more clear that while a comma would make the correct parsing more obvious, grammatically it is not called for. – Acccumulation Dec 7 at 19:30
  • @Accumulation: I disagree with the idea that grammar calls for or doesn't call for commas. IMO, they have really nothing to do with one another. The purpose of punctuation is to add clarity to the written presentation of language, no more, no less. A comma would have made clear for OP that it was not a phrasal verb, tell with. Do native speakers need a comma there? No, they don't. Would a comma be wrong there? No, it wouldn't. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 at 22:24

This is a less common sense of "with". It's not literally referring to being in the company of house-elves; it means more "in matters related to" or "when dealing with".

The relevant portion is

it was very hard to tell with a house-elf

This can also be phrased the other way around:

with a house-elf, it was very hard to tell

What it's saying is that when dealing with house-elves, it can be difficult to tell whether they are female or not, whereas for other creatures it might be easier.

Harry suspected -- though it was very hard to tell with a house-elf -- that this one might just be female.

Harry suspected that this house elf was female, though it is hard to tell/decide/say what the gender is when you look at a house elf.

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