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There are several Japanese books teaching Japanese students how to write in English. I found this example in 『英作文参考書の誤りを正す』 (Correcting Errors in English Composition Manuals) by Michio Kawakami and J.D. Monkman.

The authors of this book claim that this sentence is incorrect:

This box of matches is empty.

They note that a “box of matches” is a box containing matches (and not a box made out of matches), hence the sentence should instead be:

This matchbox is empty.

Likewise, an “empty bottle of beer” should instead be an “empty beer bottle.”

Is this actually an error that I should avoid in writing English? If so, is it a grammatical error or something else?

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    They're both fine, grammatically. I'm more curious about the exact phrase the author used in the book. And also, the context. – Damkerng T. Mar 23 '14 at 3:26
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    @DamkerngT. He said: A box of matches is a box containing matches, hence the sentence should be: "This matchbox is empty" because a matchbox can be empty. Likewise a bottle of beer is a bottle containing beer. If you drink the beer and empty it, it is a beer bottle but no longer a bottle of beer. – Makoto Kato Mar 23 '14 at 3:38
  • Here is what I believe. I believe that both are possible, but "(a) box of matches" can be ambiguous, and as a result, it is safer for students to avoid. Let's have a look at real usages in Google Ngram: empby box of matches vs. empty matchbox(es). ... – Damkerng T. Mar 23 '14 at 4:02
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    That sort of “error” is very different from a grammatical error – it's usually called a style error, and it isn't universally regarded as incorrect. It's more of a guideline. (The same is true to some extent of grammatical errors, but people are generally more sensitive to strange grammar than they are to strange style.) – Bradd Szonye Mar 25 '14 at 3:34
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As a native speaker, I would not regard empty box of matches, empty bottle of beer, empty glass of water, or empty tin of sardines to be "wrong". Anyone arguing that I should say instead empty matchbox, empty beer bottle, empty water glass, and empty sardine tin probably wouldn't get in too many more discussions with me, as I'd likely regard them as a pompous bag of wind.

To echo what @Bradd Szonye mentioned in the comments, there's a difference between "grammatically wrong" and "preferred in formal writing." An empty beer bottle may be a better way of saying it, but "grammatically wrong" is overstated.

There are times when we should be very careful in our wording, when it behooves us to be very fussy about such details (for example, when we are writing a resume to compete against 50 or 60 other people for a coveted job, or writing an academic paper that will be read with scrutiny by our peers). Other situations don't require such careful attention to linguistic quirks. I would say that empty box of matches falls squarely under the umbrella of good enough for everyday conversation.

  • Excellent answer, J.R. You might want to answer the other version of this question at English Language & Usage if you think it would be helpful there too. I edited that copy of the question to reflect some of the comments here, and to link to the reference work that Makato Kato appears to be using. – Bradd Szonye Mar 25 '14 at 21:55
  • I'm sending the book author the following suggestion: When referring to a box in which it's unknown how many matches are in it, one must say, "hand me that box of matches or that matchbox, depending on what it really is." – CoolHandLouis Mar 26 '14 at 7:43
  • I'd like to point out that a good academic book should have a proper balance of subject material. Even if the author was correct, there are so many more important English language issues that this particular detail seems trivial (congratulations - follow this book and you can talk to smokers and drinkers without them laughing at you for your obvious failure to apply subtle language logic). I wonder if the author has a cognitive bias, such as a (hypothetical) bias of Japanese in which this type of distinction would be important. – CoolHandLouis Mar 26 '14 at 7:58
  • @CoolHand - Good analysis. Had the book been entitled Subtle Slip-Ups in the English Language (and How to Avoid Them), a lot of folks here might have marveled at the authors' insight. Instead, it was presented to us as "incorrect," as though a non-native speaker would be jeered after saying something stupid like "this box of matches is empty" – which isn't the case at all. Unless someone fluent in both languages has read the book, it'll be hard to tell if these are truly presented as errors, or mere novelties. These oddities can be fun to think about so long as we don't get too pedantic. – J.R. Mar 26 '14 at 9:47
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When you say a box of matches you mean a matchbox which contains matches.

Let's say I'll bring a bottle of milk for you. What do you expect? An empty bottle?

By and large, a box of matches means what I have said.

But the box of matches lays more stress on the box itself. It may be empty or not.

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    May I ask if you are a native English speaker? – Makoto Kato Mar 23 '14 at 3:27
  • Nope, does it matter? I think I am right about it. – Kinzle B Mar 23 '14 at 3:30
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    I disagree. A box of matches could mean a box used for the purpose of storing matches. It may or may not be empty. – starsplusplus Mar 25 '14 at 12:05
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    Yes, I agree. But I think a matchbox is better. It's unambiguous. Again, context is everything. – Kinzle B Mar 25 '14 at 13:01
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Most native English speakers would find nothing strange about an “empty box of matches” or an “empty bottle of beer.” They would readily interpret these phrases as a “box [for] matches” or perhaps a “bottle [previously full] of beer.”

If you pointed out that “empty matchbox” or “empty beer bottle” is preferable, a fluent English speaker might agree, or might just shrug and wonder what the big deal is about. Diction choices like this are a matter of style, and poor choices are style errors. Most rules of style are subjective, so what looks like a style error to one writer (like the authors of your reference book) might be perfectly acceptable to another. One of the functions of a style guide is to recommend specific choices for diction, spelling, punctuation, formatting, etc. to maintain a consistent style in publications.

Note that this construction is not a grammatical error, at least not as the term is used by linguists. Jeremy Butterfield aptly notes that “Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.” While linguists and other serious language enthusiasts use grammar to mean a variety of things, it generally relates to the structure of language rather than its meaning. Thus, phrases like “this serious kerfuffle of parsnips” are grammatical even though they might not make sense at all, because there's nothing wrong with the structure of the phrase. The same is true for “empty box of matches.”

All that said, many native speakers would object if you changed the example slightly:

This bottle of beer is full of milk.

We call this kind of style error a garden path sentence because readers are lured down one path (thinking that the bottle is full of beer) and then suddenly surprised by what they find at the end of the sentence (that it's actually full of milk). A garden path sentence forces the reader to suddenly re-interpret the sentence to make sense of it, often requiring a completely different parse of the grammar. For example:

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.


Note: This is a copy of the answer I posted at English Language & Usage.

  • This bottle of beer is full of milk. This phrasing is also fun to use for humor-wordplay when such a situation actually occurs. – CoolHandLouis Mar 26 '14 at 7:36
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Unless you've pulled this out of context, you have yourself a book of corrections that needs correcting. I believe that the author is just trying to remove 'needless words'. A 'box of matches' is indeed a 'matchbox'. To say 'matchbox' is more common, more natural, a better demonstration of linguistic skill etc, but a 'box of matches' is still correct.

...This question is hardly off-topic. The people who make such declarations are a little too fine with their combing sometimes.

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    The OP states that he's translating advice from a Japanese book, and I suspect that he doesn't realize that grammatical has a specific technical meaning in this context. – Bradd Szonye Mar 25 '14 at 2:56

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