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A dictionary entry for "to" has this usage example of the phrase "put ...to":

  1. He put a finger to his lips.

But, on the web, I found sentences that uses "put...to" this way:

  1. Jane put a flashlight to John's ear.

Does it mean Jane really touched John's ear with a flashlight? The purpose of a flashlight to shine light at something. Could sentence 2 have other meanings?

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  • Note that "put to X" does not necessarily mean actually touching, it could mean bringing very close. It is quite plausible that someone would hold a flashlight very near a person's ear so they could see the ear canal.
    – Jay
    Oct 1, 2014 at 18:21

2 Answers 2

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'Jane put a flashlight to Johns ear'

Without context it's hard to know the authors intention, but

1) Jane used the flashlight to illuminate inside the ear ( maybe to look for an irritant )

2) John had big ears, and so holding a (strong) flashlight to the ear would allow Jane to partially see through it (medical/comical reasons)

3) Jane was making John aware, through some proactive method, he should be listening carefully. The flashlight is a metaphor. (This would most likely be used in literature rather than in speech).

There are probably better ways to express the above actions, but the use of 'put' and 'to' creates a more intimate scenario than maybe replacing it with 'pointed' or 'aimed'.

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2) Jane put a flashlight to John's ear.

literally means as you say, the flashlight actually touching or close to touching his ear. A similar example:

Jane put the seashell to her ear.

Here, the seashell was touching her ear or at least close enough to hear the waves.

To say the likely meaning of pointing the flashlight (light) at his ear, you have to say a bit more. For example:

Jane pointed a flashlight at John's ear.

Use at because it is a direction the light travels, not the physical position of the flashlight that you are trying to describe.

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  • So, "to put a flashlight to someone's ear" is poor English?
    – meatie
    Oct 1, 2014 at 19:32
  • Depends on the context, but it implies it is physically put at or near to the ear. Of course its possible...
    – user3169
    Oct 1, 2014 at 19:35

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