5 [noncount] : the state of being active or having an effect

the play of market forces 

She promotes the free play of ideas in her classroom.


I also found some examples from the COCA.

  1. " Battle is the raucous transformer of history, " Hanson observes, " because it also accelerates in a matter of minutes the usually longer play of chance, skill, and fate? "

  2. Indeed, the virtuosity evident in the variety of work in this exhibition, the multiplicity of techniques represented, the kaleidoscopic play of imagination reflected in the forms, lines, colors and textures all attest to the remarkable vitality of this workshop tradition presided over by Chunghi Choo as benevolent muse, and to the continuing mutual support which this teacher and these artists provide for one another.

I have checked this thread regarding “at play”. https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/76476/is-the-usage-of-at-play-limited-to-children-s-action

One post says:

As noted in etymonline's entry for the noun play, «Meaning "free or unimpeded movement" is from 1650s.» This meaning of play is seen in wiktionary's sense 9 of noun play, "The extent to which a part of a mechanism can move freely"

Could you explain the connotation of “play” in these contexts? Does it have a whimsical and light-hearted feel?

  • Quoting @Kris's answer: "As I see it, at play here implies influencing/ controlling. The issues at play are the factors that affect the decision or drive the outcome. The word play has far too many different meanings beyond those mentioned by you." and your own definition: "the state of being active or having an effect". What makes you think this is confined to a whimsical and light-hearted feel? – Bee Aug 28 '19 at 14:17
  • 1
    "What makes you think this is confined to a whimsical and light-hearted feel?" - indeed. A machine-gunner can let a stream of bullets play over an enemy trench, killing a number of the soldiers. Nothing light-hearted about that. – Michael Harvey Aug 28 '19 at 15:58
  • I see. I thought of the expression "play of light". Then I guessed it had a light-hearted feel. Anyway, this is why I am asking the question here. I felt uncertain. Andrew's answer has made it clear for me. – luxury20041985 Aug 28 '19 at 21:16

play (n):
   4. The space in or through which a mechanism can or does move.
      4.1 Scope or freedom to act or operate.

  1. Light and constantly changing movement.

The use of "play" in your example is something of a combination of these two definitions. It suggests a continuous and sometimes random movement or motivation, related to the current set of circumstances. At the same time it suggests the limits of these actions within the particular scope of those circumstances.

To be more specific: The "play" of market forces suggests not that merchants and traders are playing but rather that they are engaged in a constant competition with each other that results in rapid fluctuations in such things as the price of commodities. Sometimes these prices goes up, as the traders become "bullish" on their future value. Sometimes the price goes down for the opposite reason. The collective movement of these market forces can seem guided, as if by Adam Smith's famous "Invisible Hand"

In a similar way, the "play of ideas" suggests that, within the context of the classroom, individual students will express theories and opinions that other students will accept or reject. While from the resulting debate some consensus may emerge, like the previously mentioned market forces, its exact nature is largely unpredictable.

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