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  1. She tried in vain to prevent the work from being done.
  2. She tried to prevent the work from being done in vain.

Our teacher said these two sentences show different intents, but I can't see the difference. Help?

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    In (2), in vain could modify she tried as it does in (1), or it could modify the work being done, since it comes after that clause. – John Lawler Mar 10 at 2:26
  • In vain, she tried.../She in vain tried.../She tried in vain.../ She tried something in vain.... - All these could be different in meanings. The second sentence could be modified as "She tried to prevent the work from being done, but was in vain. – Ram Pillai Mar 10 at 13:08
  • "3. She tried to prevent the work from being done, in vain." would equate to #1 – MonkeyZeus Mar 10 at 14:30
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The two do have different meanings.

She tried in vain to prevent the work from being done.

This means that the thing she tried to prevent was "the work being done". That she "tried in vain" means she failed, that is, the work was done, she couldn't stop it.

She tried to prevent the work from being done in vain.

This means that the thing she tried to prevent was "the work being done in vain". That is, she didn't try to prevent the work, she took some action to try to stop the work being wasted.

An example may help for the second version: let's say an architect works all month to design a building. That work would be in vain (would be wasted) if she can't get the building permits needed in order to start construction on the building. So she tries to prevent that outcome by applying for permits early.

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    Just for the sake of nitpicking: Couldn't one make the two sentences say the same by adding a comma: "She tried to prevent the work from being done, in vain." - ie "..., but it was in vain". – j4nd3r53n Mar 10 at 9:36
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    @j4nd3r53n - Yes, I agree with that. Tim's answer also covered another interpretation of the second sentence which i forgot to mention. – nnnnnn Mar 10 at 12:26
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The first is categoric. Although she tried to prevent the work being done, she failed in her attempt.

The second is vague. It could go either way, when spoken. It could mean the same as the first, with a slight pause after 'done' - which would perhaps indicate a comma was necessary, or, it could mean that she attempted to halt the work, as it would be pointless. The latter would be the more acceptable reasoning.

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The answers from nnnnnn and Tim are excellent. However, I think I can add a little to their explanations.

When I was at school, we were asked to consider the sentence: “A table for a lady with wooden legs”. What has wooden legs? Does the table have wooden legs or is this a table designed for ladies with wooden legs?

We were taught to be very careful when adding phrases like “with wooden legs” or “in vain”. Was it clear what had wooden legs or was in vain? If the additional information could refer to more than one thing, we had to arrange the sentence so it was clear. So:

  1. A table with wooden legs for a lady.
  2. A table, for a lady, with wooden legs.
  3. A lady with wooden legs needs a table like this.

With (1), I have moved “with wooden legs before “lady” so it is clear it is the table that has wooden legs. With (2), I have placed commas around “for a lady” to make clear the sentence is “A table with wooden legs” with “for a lady” being an insert. With (3), I have made it clear it is the lady that has wooden legs both by the sequence of the words and by adding “needs” and “like this”.

With, “She tried in vain to prevent the work from being done”, it is clear that “She tried” is being described by “in vain”. That sentence is unambiguous.

In, “She tried to prevent the work from being done in vain”, what is in vain? Is it “She tried” or is it “the work”? Ram Pillai suggests “She tried to prevent the work from being done, but was in vain”. This keeps the sequence but makes clear “She tried” is being described by “in vain”.

But suppose it is “the work” that would be in vain, how would you make that clear? I would rearrange the sentence: “The work would be in vain, so she tried to prevent it”.

To summarise, with any sentence, particularly one with additional information, you must stop and think: could it be misinterpreted?

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    A table for a wooden legged lady. A wooden legged table for a lady. – CJ Dennis Mar 10 at 20:18
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    "When I was a school" - how did you metamorphose into a human? – Rand al'Thor Mar 10 at 21:25
  • "But suppose it is “the work” that would be in vain, how would you make that clear? I would rearrange the sentence: “The work would be in vain, so she tried to prevent it”." Your meaning here is clear but it's not how I'd interpret the original sentence. How would you re-write "She tried to prevent [the work being done in vain]" if what she tried to do wasn't stop the work, but make it count? – Alex M Mar 10 at 21:27
  • @Randal'Thor. Oh dear! I read my answer several times but missed that mistake. – Tony Dallimore Mar 10 at 22:49
  • @AlexM That was an interpretation I had not thought of. "She tried to prevent the work from being done in vain" is even more ambiguous than I thought. This re-enforces my last point: can the sentence I have just written be misinterpreted? – Tony Dallimore Mar 10 at 22:54
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They mean the same thing but the emphasis differs; in sentence no.1 the author wants the reader to primarily notice that she failed to prevent the work being done, whereas in sentence no.2 the author wants the reader to primarily notice that she tried to prevent the work being done.

Read the two sentences and notice the slight difference in imagery they evoke in your mind.

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