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What is the difference in meaning of these two phrases:

by seconds

and

in seconds

I read the first sentence in a book.

The plant was growing in seconds.

As a language learner I am curious to know if the meaning could be changed by replacing in seconds with by seconds

The plant was growing by seconds.

It's an imaginary situation as plants don't grow that quickly.

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  • The idiomatic standard here is growing by the second - except that in practice, "seconds" is too short a time-frame for many contexts. But there are plenty of written instances of things growing by the hour or ...by the day. (Each hour, or each day, one can see evidence of further growth.) Nov 23 '21 at 17:14
  • We don't use in for "ongoing, continuous" growth, only for a "completed" process. The plant grew in days means it became fully grown after only a relatively small number of days. The herb basil grows in days, but carrots and potatoes take months to grow big enough to eat. Nov 23 '21 at 17:17
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I struggle to think of a situation where "in seconds" can mean the same thing as "by seconds".

There isn't enough context to be certain, but the original sentence probably means, "The plant was growing within seconds", as in, almost immediately after doing something to the plant, it started growing.

The phrase, "by seconds" usually means how something is measured. Here's an idiomatic example:

Martin Fagan won the Manchester Road Race, one year after missing the top spot by seconds.

Here, it means in the previous year, Martin Fagan had lost the race, and the gap was less than a minute.

"By seconds" doesn't fit in this sentence or in your original sentence.

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  • 1
    could you please elaborate if the phrase "by seconds" only used in some sort of competitions, games, etc where we have to measure some gap.
    – Learner
    Nov 23 '21 at 13:07
  • @Learner I can't think of any context where it's naturally used to express anything other than measuring a gap, but there may be some that haven't occurred to me yet. The gap measurement doesn't have to be a competition though: "I submitted my essay so close to the deadline that I just got in by seconds." In searching, I've found other usages, such as: "He told me he plans a rehearsal by seconds, especially when on tour." The meaning is clear, but I find this unnatural. I would express it: ""He told me he plans a rehearsal by the second/to the second...*".
    – gotube
    Nov 23 '21 at 18:28

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