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Why is the preposition "to," rather than "by" used in the following?

This car does about 40 miles to the gallon.

Consider also this:

He is paid 20 dollars by the hour.

Why is "by" rather than "to" used here?

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    Can you give contexts where these are from, especially the second one. I would have said miles per gallon and dollars per hour.
    – mdewey
    Oct 31, 2020 at 16:15
  • That is why I asked for context as what I say in the UK may not be what is used where you are. The standard abbreviation in the UK is mpg and we usually quote payments as per week, per month. In the US and elsewhere it may be different of course. I am an L1 speaker of the dialect spoken in southern England but that may be irrelevant.
    – mdewey
    Oct 31, 2020 at 16:22
  • 2
    If you do a wild-card search in Google NGrams for miles * the gallon you'll see it's almost always to (very rarely, on, which I think may be a US dialectal variant). Note that your "paid $20 by the hour" isn't idiomatically valid anyway. He's paid by the hour OR with an amount: He's paid $20 an hour. Oct 31, 2020 at 16:51
  • In principle, either or both of the cited contexts could feature for or per instead of by / to [the]. The specific prepositions we do use are "accidents of history" in many context anyway, so there's not necessarily any "reason" for the versions that are currently in use. Oct 31, 2020 at 16:55
  • I found this sentence: “As you know, shipping has already been disrupted and there is a loss of billions of dollars by the hour. "
    – Apollyon
    Oct 31, 2020 at 16:58

2 Answers 2

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“He earns twenty dollars by the hour” means: He is paid hourly, and he made a total of 20 dollars. We don’t know how many hours he worked for that money.

If you wanted to say that he is making twenty dollars in one hour you’d say “he makes twenty dollars per hour” or “twenty dollars an hour”. The “to” in “40 miles to the gallon” comes from the fact that the gallons actually produce the mileage. The hours don’t produce anything, it’s the work done in this hour.

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Why is the preposition "to," rather than "by" used in the following?

This car does about 40 miles to the gallon.

No reason, it's just an idiom. "a" or "per" could replace "to the" and would also be natural.

Consider also this:

He is paid 20 dollars by the hour.

Why is "by" rather than "to" used here?

Neither "by" nor "to" sounds natural. Usually we would say "He is paid 20 dollars an hour" or "per hour".

"paid by the hour" is usually used like this:

He is paid by the hour.

without a dollar amount. It means he is paid according to how many hours he works, not a fixed salary.

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  • How about "He earns 20 dollars by the hour"?
    – Apollyon
    Nov 1, 2020 at 1:07

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