As far as I know, two of the usages of preposition 'by' are:

If you do something by a particular means, you do it using that thing.

Ex: 1. We'll be travelling by car./ May I pay by credit card?

  1. We returned home by a different route./ We went in by the front door.

  2. She had dinner by candlelight./ We had to work by candlelight.


If you do something by a particular method, you use that method to achieve something.

Ex: 1. Reading is taught by traditional methods here.

  1. Every bit of lace is made by hand.

  2. He learned English by listening to the radio.

So with those above meanings are these following sentences correct and understandable when I apply 'by' in order to mean 'using a thing or a method'? If their meanings are not clear, please show me other ways to rewrite these sentences.

  1. She wrote the answers by a pen.
  2. He usually drinks coffee by a tumbler.
  3. She ate spaghetti by a bowl instead of a plate.
  • There might be a connection with German idioms, German "bei" is a homophone of "by", and describes proximity/connected context - bei Nacht ("by night" is not unheard of), bei Kerzenlicht ("by candlelight" indeed), beim Fluss (English knows "by the river" too)... Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 10:47

7 Answers 7


Nope! In all three of the sentences at the end of your question, by indicates location: beside, near, next to, nearby (though the meaning could be shifted by context). To indicate that the pen, the tumbler, or the bowl were the means, you would need another word:

She wrote the answers with a pen.
He usually drinks coffee using a tumbler.
She ate spaghetti using a bowl instead of a plate.
She ate spaghetti with a bowl instead of a plate.

Most common prepositions in English are best understood as elements of phrases, where the phrase as a whole has the meaning, not the preposition by itself independently of a phrase. The dictionary definition of a preposition can often help you figure out the meaning of a given phrase that you came across, but they're not much help for constructing your own sentences with (not "by") the same preposition.

This might make learning English prepositions seem hopeless. I do think that English prepositions are even more complicated than English spelling. Together with this long answer, though, the following might help. Instead of trying to explain what by "means", the examples below show, starting from a specific means or method, how you express it in a prepositional phrase modifying the verb. Sometimes the preposition will be by, and sometimes it will be something else. Of course this doesn't explain all kinds of expressions for means and methods; these just show you how expressing these (and many other) ideas works in English.

Some means and how to express them

To indicate the tool that is operated to perform the action of the verb, you say with:

Chris pounded the nails in with a hammer.
Gag me with a spoon.
You turn a car with a steering wheel.
Little Teresa is ready to learn to eat with a knife and fork.

To indicate the light that provides visibility for the action of the verb, you say by. If it's a type of light, then the noun gets no article:

We ate dinner by candlelight.
We dug the grave by moonlight.
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed…
We searched for the secret door by the light of my keychain LED.

We danced in the sunlight. (This says where we danced, not how we could see.)
We danced by the river in the moonlight according to the Graham method. (Here "by" and "in" indicate location; "according to" indicates method.)

To indicate the type of transportation vehicle used in the action of the verb, you say by with no article or in with an article. A specific vehicle only takes in:

We'll be traveling across Europe by train.
We traveled across the United States by car.
We drove across the United States in Jason's car.
This time, we're going by plane.
She was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
The Amish still get across town by horse and buggy.
The Amish still get across town in a horse and buggy.

To indicate a method of payment, you can say by or with, but cash normally takes in or with except as an alternative to another method. In these phrases, and many other "by" phrases for means, "by" suggests indirectness: going through something, like a route. Cash is direct: it really is the money, whereas the others are ways of transferring money via a third party.

The IRS will let you pay your taxes by check or money order.
Most people pay the IRS with a check. (Note the article.)
Will you please pay me in cash? That'll save me a trip to the bank.
We tried to pay by credit card but the machine wasn't working, so we paid with cash.
You can't pay with a credit card here, so you'll have to pay with cash.
This gas station lets you pay by cash, check, or credit card.
William paid cash for his new Camaro. (That is, William did not take out a loan. He probably wrote a check.)

There are various fixed phrases for special means:

Katya can play music by ear.
Little Teresa now knows the multiplication table by heart.
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
We're conducting this investigation by the book.
Professor Friedman addressed each student by name.
This sweater was made by hand, not by machine.

When in doubt, you can substitute using for most of the prepositions above (but not the fixed phrases). But using is a somewhat hazy word, prone to be clearer to the writer than the reader. It's usually better to say something more specific, like:

She wrote the answers in pen.
He usually drinks coffee from a tumbler.
She ate spaghetti from a bowl instead of a plate.

None of the above is a rule, though. English works by precedents and analogies, not by rules. Just as in English common law, precedents sometimes conflict, and context can often make a normally "wrong" usage reasonable and expected.

The above is way too much to memorize. I recommend not even trying—because then you might start viewing those things as rules. Hopefully they show you how to go about learning prepositions in English: one phrase at a time, following the analogies, noting which are especially well known or canonical phrases that serve as precedents. Notice that I put the whole prepositional phrases in bold. Those are the chunks to pay attention to.

  • 2
    @AIQ Thanks. :) About light: I don't really know. Maybe it relates to indirectness: by with light always seems to be dim light coming from a point, whereas sunlight seems to be everywhere all at once. BTW, I only noticed this while writing this answer. Probably the main force of these things is not any rule or consistent pattern, but a few well established clichés, like "working by moonlight", "by the light of the silvery Moon", serving as the basis for analogies in new situations—dinner by candlelight, and so on. Hmm, "by the dawn's early light" is sunlight. OK, time to update the answer…
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 9:33
  • 1
    it's short for 'by the means of' probably?
    – crobar
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 13:13
  • 1
    "By moonlight", as with "by daylight", seems to imply some kind of activity that is affected by the light. "We travelled by daylight" seems to hint that the travelling was somehow affected by the daylight (perhaps easier, more risky, etc.). If something was done "by moonlight", it may have been more romantic, etc. "In the sunlight" seems to just describe the location of something at a point in time: "It was left out in the sunlight for two days." - There's no indication of any activity in this. "Daylight" seems to carry an implication of time, whereas "sunlight" does not.
    – Chris Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 14:27
  • 3
    @AIQ - You are claiming a dichotomy when there isn't one; in the moonlight is just fine. Dancin' in the moonlight / Everybody's feelin' warm and bright / It's such a fine and natural sight / Everybody's dancin' in the moonlight.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 14:29
  • 6
    I think that "by" here is another example of "by means of", with the implication that the light is what's enabling you to see to do the thing. "Dancing by sunlight" would mean that you're dancing while using the sunlight as your main light source for the activity. "Dancing in the sunlight" would mean that you're surrounded by sunlight while you're dancing. If you're dancing indoors, and there's enough sunlight coming through the window to avoid tripping over stuff but not to fill the room, you're dancing by sunlight but not necessarily in the sunlight. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 17:20
  1. She wrote the answers by a pen.

It would sound more correct to say:

The answers were written by a pen.

However, you wouldn't say this, as the pen was not the agent of intent, it didn't write anything of its own.

You would say:

She wrote the answers with a pen.

This implies that the pen was a tool that was used, and sort of hints at collaboration.

  1. He usually drinks coffee by a tumbler.

I would write this as:

He usually drinks coffee out of a tumbler.

It's a little different to the above, as it doesn't have the collaborative implication. Instead, the tumbler is merely holding the coffee, and is not really involved in the drinking.

I guess you might say that the person could technically drink the coffee without the tumbler, but with writing, you need something to write with (generally speaking).

  1. She ate spaghetti by a bowl instead of a plate.

This is similar to 2:

She ate spaghetti out of a bowl, instead of from a plate.

Again, the bowl/plate is just a container/location. We can say "out of" the bowl, as it appears to hold/contain the spaghetti, but a plate is flat, and so doesn't.

You could also use:

She ate spaghetti from a bowl instead of a plate.

What "from" implies is that we took something "from" something/somewhere, so it can be used with both the bowl and the plate, and also with the tumbler in example 2.

I think I prefer the "out of"/"from" sentence, as it offers a descriptive juxtaposition, which seems to help get the point across with regards to the difference between the bowl and the plate.

  • It is interesting, though, how we could say: She sent the answers by post, but we wouldn't say: She wrote the answers by pen.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 14:32
  • 1
    The distinction I see here, is that the post is a process/activity that happens on a timeline (you could substitute the word "via" for "by"), whereas a pen is an object. I suppose you could actually "processify" "pen", in a sense, and actually get away with "by pen", though it would sound a little odd: "Was it done by pen or by pencil?"
    – Chris Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 15:07
  • Your suggestions of "out of a tumbler" and "out of a bowl" seem to me more natural than "from a tumbler" etc. in my answer. Your idea of viewing the pen as implying a certain process sounds to me like a good insight to invent a context where "by pen" makes sense; that might even explain the passages quoted in DavePhD's answer.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 1:59

You can say:

She wrote the answers by pen.

(deleting the article "a")

Similar published examples are:

Translation of Thought to Written Text While Composing:

protocols were substantially longer than what he could write by pen

Report of Cases Under the Workmen's Compensation Act:

he was going to write by pen but his pen didn't have any more ink

American Lit 101: From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harper Lee:

Typewriters existed then, but Steinbeck preferred to write by pencil.

However, it is more common to say "She wrote the answers in pen".

Instead of "He usually drinks coffee by a tumbler", say:

He usually drinks coffee from a tumbler.

Instead of "She ate spaghetti by a bowl instead of a plate", say:

She ate spaghetti from a bowl instead of a plate.

  • 2
    Write by pen is certainly possible, but I don't think these are good examples to learn English from—except to learn that there's usually some context or style that makes nearly every odd variation work! And that's something everyone should know.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 19:33
  • @BenKovitz Maybe I need an example from Journal Writing in Second Language Education for this site. "... I loved writing by pencil..." (page 178) books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 19:42
  • Agreed that the example sentences are comprehensible if the articles are dropped, but that they are still unusual constructions. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 0:41
  • 2
    @Timbo Ok, I changed the answer to clarify that "in pen" is more common.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 1:03

"by" only works with certain means

In the case of your three examples, they should use different prepositions:

  1. She wrote the answers with a pen.

  2. He usually drinks coffee from/in/with a tumbler.

  3. She ate spaghetti from/in a bowl instead of a plate.

"by" is usually a means involving the larger situation

"with" is usually more an indication of a tool, like a pencil held in one's hand.

"from" and "in" are more descriptive to the geometric situation of place. "in" illustrates the substance being located with an area, "from" illustrates the substance exiting from that area.

Depending on the picture you want the audience to have in mind, any of many prepositions work, some can't. In your three cases, "by" does not work because of the illustration it paints.


I have a theory, it could be totally wrong, just guessing. It seems to me that the "by" in "by candlelight" is an exception, something that doesn't fit and shouldn't be, if English were as systematic as possible. And I have a guess of why it came to be: German. "Bei Kerzenlicht" is completely normal German, and might explain the "by" in English, when it comes to candlelight. Maybe the English used a different preposition in earlier days, and the unsystematic "by" crept in via German-native English speakers. While this is speculation, I know the phenomenon exists. "Kris Kringle" is an example. The German "Christkindl" (= something like "Jesus-kiddy") is the source.

So don't try to find a systematic rule where there is none.


Someone downvoted me, so I'll clarify what the answer has to do with the question. "by" usually translates to "using". In the "dinner by candlelight" example, however, "by" does not translate to "using". It translates to exactly what the German word "bei" means. Trust me, it does, I speak both German and English perfectly. And I don't need to back this up by linking to some government certified etymologist making the same claim, that is ridiculous baloney.

  • Thank you for contributing, you are absolutely right that English is a big mix of other languages, due to various historical "changes in management". Also, that trying to find systematic rules in English is rarely a wise use of time. However, answers here shouldn't really be guesses (referencing is always a good thing), and more to the point - I'm not sure this really answers the question, so much as it adds a discussion (which unfortunately, this website isn't really designed for).
    – user68033
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 13:15

I'm surprised that none of the answers here provide the simplest answer, which is the correct answer: yes.


In the examples you gave, you are referring to things in the instrumental case. As explained in the linked article:

The instrumental case ... is a grammatical case used to indicate that a noun is the instrument or means by or with which the subject achieves or accomplishes an action. The noun may be either a physical object or an abstract concept.

This may not be immediately apparent to English speakers because we don't decline nouns to indicate case, instead we rely on helper words such as prepositions.

Funny enough, the first article linked above refers to an example strikingly similar to yours:

Modern English expresses the instrumental meaning by use of adverbial phrases that begin with the words with, by, or using then followed by the noun indicating the instrument:

I wrote the note with a pen.

I wrote the note (by) using a pen.

Technical descriptions often use the phrase "by means of", which is similar to "by use of", as in:

I wrote the note by means of a pen.

I wrote the note by use of a pen.

This can be replaced by "via", which is a Latin ablative of the nominative (viā) via, meaning road, route, or way. In the ablative this means by way of.

This should make it abundantly clear that your original interpretation is actually correct; phrases such as "by hand" and "by train" refer to objects as things that are being used.

  • What the OP asked, was not correct. The meaning of "She wrote the answers by a pen." is not the same as "She wrote the answers by pen". In the first, the answers were written at a location ("by a pen"), in the second they were written with a specific method ("by pen").
    – user68033
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 10:22
  • @Bilkokuya I'm gonna push back against this. Your interpretation may be correct on its face, but it's totally context-unaware. Saying "this refers to a location rather than an instrument" is a misleading assessment. Rather, what you should say is "referring to instrumental objects using 'by' requires no indefinite article (e.g. 'a')". Clearly, this is what he was trying to say, and saying "by a pen" as a location in this context is awkward and wouldn't be used normally by an English speaker. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 3:01

IMHO the use of "by" in "have dinner by candlelight" is something like an abbreviation for "by way of" or "by means of." In English we have the expression "to read by the light of the moon," and there's a song called "Stella By Starlight," where in both cases the idea is that something is being seen by means of moonlight or starlight as the source of illumination. "Dinner by candlelight," I believe, is probably best read as an extension of this usage, where it's not just our ability to eat the food that is enhanced by the romantic lighting source but also the image of the person with whom we're sharing the meal.

Analyses that try to shoehorn the interpretation of 'by', in this case, so that it fits with ordinary spatial usage don't seem necessary. The problem translating pronouns from one language to another is that in each language the use of certain pronouns is a matter of historical convention, and it's impossible to get them to line up according to simple, basic meanings that the words are supposed to have.

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