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Although this finding needs to be cautiously interpreted, /.../

How does this sound to a native speaker? Would it make any difference if we change it to:

Although this finding needs to be interpreted cautiously, /.../

... or ...

Although this finding needs to be interpreted with caution, /.../

My understanding would be that in the first version, one is emphasizing the need to interpret this finding (albeit with caution), whereas in the 2nd and 3rd versions, the emphasis is on being cautious (whereas interpreting the finding is taken for granted). Does it work like that in English?

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  • It's stretching a point to suggest a real "difference" in meaning with your specific example, because both versions refer to interpretation, and there's no real scope for alluding to the possibility that the findings might not be "interpreted" at all... Aug 18 at 13:45
  • ...But consider To be successful, this project needs to be funded generously / generously funded. Arguably the generously funded more explicitly acknowledges the possibility that it might not be funded at all (but if it is, it must be generously). Aug 18 at 13:48
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    I think what you mean is when someone says anything like this information needs to be "treated carefully", what they really mean is they don't accept it, and would like it to be ignored by everyone. The actual word "interpret" in such contexts is usually just a "weasel word" from a speaker who doesn't want to come straight out and say these findings are misleading, and should be ignored. Aug 18 at 14:26
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    In statistical analyses, there are often results that should not be interpreted "as such". For example, an average difference between men and women (say, in height) should not be interpreted (but is there) if the sample is not representative (men come from a local basketball club and women from a crochet club) or too small to make reliable conclusions. But I agree that it is (almost?) the same as to say that the findings should be ignored.
    – lebatsnok
    Aug 18 at 14:36
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    Under normal circumstances, I would not distinguish between these (except that the first is somewhat awkward, and the third most natural). But if I had to assign distinct meanings, I would do it the same way you have. Aug 18 at 21:27

2 Answers 2

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There is no difference in meaning between any of those clauses. In each case, what is being mandated is cautious interpretation.

Personally, I find “to be cautiously interpreted” slightly awkward and prefer “to be interpreted cautiously” or “to be interpreted with caution,” but not due to any difference in meaning.

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  • I am accepting the answer that came first but the usage chart from the other answer (by FumbleFingers) is also instructive. Thank you both!
    – lebatsnok
    Aug 18 at 14:26
  • Indeed. I didn't include it, because need to be interpreted with caution is more words than can appear in a single Googe Books search string. But actually, the results are just as meaningful without that initial need, so here's the "full" usage chart... Aug 18 at 14:31
  • ...showing that to be interpreted with caution is far more common anyway. There's no real equivalent alternative with my done quickly example, though, which may be significant. Aug 18 at 14:33
  • A usage chart is of no value if different word orders have different meanings, which is the topic of your question. It turns out that “he hit her” is more common than “she hit him,” but that does not mean that “he hit her” is a valid way to describe an assault on a man by a woman. I suspect thar FF went to ngram because he did not take seriously the idea that the difference in word order being discussed could possibly represent a semantic difference. Ngram is useful in determining what published writers view as more idiomatic expressions of the same thought. Aug 19 at 1:27
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It's worth noting this usage chart...

enter image description here

I must say I'm surprised the cautiously interpreted version appears as often as it does - I personally find it rather peculiar. At least I'm reassured to see that my fellow Anglophones are more solidly in agreement with this much more common verb + adverb construction (done quickly / quickly done)...

enter image description here


I think it's ridiculous to suggest that either of these examples could have a different meaning depending on whether the adverb comes before or after the verb.


TLDR: Both versions are syntactically valid and semantically equivalent - but one is "more idiomatic" (to at least some people! :)

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