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(Excuse for my broken English) I am a Japanese student studying English.

The other day, my classmate was asked to translate the below Japanese sentence into English by the teacher:

  1. この手紙がロンドンに着くまで、どのくらい時間がかかりますか?

The teacher showed the answer like this:

  1. How long does it take a letter to reach London?

But my classmate had translated it into this:

  1. How long does this letter take to arrive at London?

Is this sentence #3 unnatural?

No one who was in the class can answer whether this sentence is natural or unnatural. If this sentence is unnatural, what is it that makes it unnatural?

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"A letter" means letters in general. It means, "If someone (not necessarily me) sends a letter to London, how long will it take to get there?"

"This letter" means a specific letter (like Japanese これ[kore], I think). "The letter that I am talking about (or pointing at or holding in my hand right now) - how long will this specific letter take to get to London?"

When we're talking about a specific letter, the verb "to do" needs to be in the future tense ('will'), because the letter hasn't yet arrived in London.

And as quant points out, you need to use 'in London' rather than 'at London'. Because London is a big place and the letter will be within it.

So it should be:

How long will this letter take to arrive in London?

if I want to know the travel time for this specific letter that I am holding in my hand right now, or

How long does it take a letter to reach London?

if I want to know the travel time for letters in general, not any particular letter, just a hypothetical letter that anyone might send.

How long does it take a letter to arrive in London?

is also fine: 'to arrive in' and 'to reach' mean the same thing in this context.

  • The main point (when asking about a specific letter we'd use future tense) is more or less an "absolute". But although arrive in London is far more likely, Google Books estimates 168,000 things have arrived at London in print. It's not "wrong", just less common. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Nov 7 '14 at 14:10
  • @FumbleFingers: Interesting point. I think it depends on the size of the object and whether there is more than one possible destination for it within the destination town/city. For example, if Dundee has only one station and I'm on the train to Dundee, then I might hear the announcement "In 20 minutes this train will arrive at Dundee". But for London they would specify the station e.g. "... this train will arrive at London Paddington". London Paddington is one of a number of possible stations in London whereas 'Dundee' is the only station of that name, which makes it a destination in itself. – A E Nov 7 '14 at 14:20
  • Yeah - I quite agree that there are certain specific contexts where at becomes more likely. And by implication, there are other contexts where it's so unlikely it wouldn't be unreasonable to say it's "wrong". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Nov 7 '14 at 14:50
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  1. How long does it take a letter to reach London? -- [teacher's version]

  2. How long does this letter take to arrive at London? -- [classmate's version]

The teacher's version (#2) sounds good. That is, it is acceptable and is standard English.

Your classmate's version (#3) sounds unusual, and is probably unacceptable. (Though, some of the problem might be due to the subject "this letter".)

Let's look a bit at your teacher's version #2:

  1. How long does it take a letter to reach London? -- [teacher's version]

But let's insert the word "for" in there to see how it looks:

  • A. How long does it take [for a letter to reach London]?

This version #A basically means the same thing as version #2 (the teacher's version).

I'm going to spend a hunk of the analysis on that version #A, because what I want to show will show up cleaner this way, or so I hope.

Let's now look at version #A and some versions that could correspond to it:

  • B. It takes five days [for a letter to reach London]. -- [sentence is a declarative clause]

  • C. It takes how long [for a letter to reach London]? -- [interrogative clause, with interrogative phrase in situ]

  • D/A. How long does it take [for a letter to reach London]? -- [interrogative clause, with interrogative phrase fronted]

Notice that version #D (which is identical to #A) has subject-auxiliary inversion, which was done due to the fronting of a non-subject interrogative phrase ("how long").

In version #D, we can see that the pronoun "it" is the subject because it had undergone subject-auxiliary inversion and also because it is sandwiched between the auxiliary verb ("does") and the lexical verb ("take"). That the word "it" is sandwiched like that definitely shows that the word "it" is the grammatical subject of the main clause.

Let's look a bit deeper at version #B. We see that the subject is the dummy pronoun "it", and that the infinitival clause "for a letter to reach London" is sorta like a semantic-subject for the sentence--this is why this pronoun "it" is considered to be a dummy pronoun, because it has no semantic meaning in itself. In other words, version #B has the meaning of the below version #E, but #E is less likely to occur than version #B:

  • B. It takes five days [for a letter to reach London]. -- [extraposition]

  • E. [For a letter to reach London] takes five days. -- [infinitival clause as subject]

Version #B is called an extraposition construction because there's an extra position in the clause, one that is filled by that extra word "it", when compared to the more basic version #E.

The reason why extraposed version #B is more likely to be used than #E is that #E's subject is a subordinate infinitival clause, which means that the subject is a clause and that means that the subject will usually be relatively heavy in weight when compared to the other elements in a sentence, and there is a strong preference to have heavy stuff moved to the end of the sentence, thus, the extraposed version is often preferred (by the speaker/writer).

Now, having gone through all that, let's go and look at the teacher's version #2:

  1. How long does it take [a letter] to reach London? -- [teacher's version]

We can see that the word "it" is the grammatical subject of version #2. That's because the word "it" is sandwiched between the auxiliary verb ("does") and the lexical verb ("take").

So, there is a lot of similar stuff between version #2 and the above heavily analyzed version #A. But there is a big difference: in version #2, the so-called semantic-subject is the noun phrase "a letter" (while #A's semantic-subject is the infinitival clause "for a letter to reach London"). We can see this if we replace the dummy pronoun "it" of #2 with that noun phrase "a letter":

  • 2.s How long does [a letter] take to reach London?

Also, because version #2s doesn't lose any semantic meaning due to the deletion of the word "it", that indicates that the word "it" is a dummy pronoun (i.e. it has no semantic meaning).

Let's look at some versions that could correspond to version #2s:

  • 2.t [A letter] takes five days to reach London. -- [declarative clause]

  • 2.u [A letter] takes how long to reach London? -- [interrogative clause, with interrogative phrase in situ]

  • 2.v/s How long does [a letter] take to reach London? -- [interrogative clause, with interrogative phrase fronted]

Those above versions (#2s-v) seem to be okay. The difference between them and the previous versions (#A-D) is one that is more of pragmatics--in this case, of information packaging. That is, the subject in #A-D is a dummy pronoun "it", and so, it will be relatively quite easy to use their sentences in many different contexts -- while versions #2s-v have a semantically meaningful noun phrase as their subject and so there will be more restrictions on their sentences as to which contexts they will be acceptable in.

Now let's look at your classmate's version #3:

  1. How long does [this letter] take [to arrive at London]? -- [classmate's version]

Compared to your teacher's version #2, there are three main differences:

  • version #3 does not have a dummy pronoun "it" as its subject. Instead, it has a semantically meaningful noun phrase "this letter" as its subject, which means that the contexts that its sentence will be acceptable in are restricted.

  • version #3 uses a different noun phrase as its meaningful semantic-subject: #3's "this letter" (a definite noun phrase) vs #2's "a letter" (an indefinite noun phrase).

  • version #3 uses a different verb ("arrive") in its infinitival clause; and also the infinitival clause uses a preposition phrase ("at London") as a complement instead of a noun phrase ("London") as done in version #2.

Your classmate's version #3 is awkward and probably unacceptable. As to why this is so, it might help if we fiddle around with permutations of version #3, by switching out the three differences in different combinations to see which differences seem to be important.

For instance, if we switch in the verb "reach" (which means we'll also have to exchange out the preposition phrase for the noun phrase "London" to make it grammatical), we'll get:

  • 3.a How long does [this letter] take to reach London?

It sounds a little better than before, but it seems to be unacceptable, that is, awkward. The remaining awkwardness might be due to the noun phrase "this letter". (Notice that the awkwardness disappears once we switch in the noun phrase "a letter", but then that version has now become version #2s.)

Let's now try putting that permutation #3a into a construction that uses a dummy pronoun "it" as its subject:

  • 3.b How long does it take this letter to reach London?

It sounds a little bit more better, but it is probably still too awkward sounding to be acceptable.

Let's try a permutation where we put your classmate's original version #3 straight into a construction that uses a dummy pronoun "it" as its subject:

  • 3.c How long does it take [this letter] to arrive at London?

It too sounds a bit better than your classmate's original version #3.

Let's try permutations of your classmate's version #3 where we switch in the noun phrase "a letter", with and without using a dummy pronoun "it" as subject:

  • 3.d How long does [a letter] take to arrive at London?

  • 3.e How long does it take [a letter] to arrive at London?

Those changes seem to help a bit, but both of them still seem to be awkward and unacceptable.

So, there seems to perhaps be multiple reasons why your classmate's version #3 ends up being awkward and unacceptable.

  • One major reason is the difference in type of noun phrase (NP): the definite NP "this letter" used in your classmate's version #3 versus the indefinite NP "a letter" as used in the teacher's version #2.

  • Another major reason is the difference in the verb in the infinitival clause: the verb "arrive" in your classmate's version #3 versus the verb "reach" in the teacher's version #2.

Interestingly, notice how the acceptability of your classmate's version #3 seems to be improved if we insert the verb "will":

  • 3.f How long will this letter take to arrive at London?

  • 3.g How long will it take this letter to arrive at London?

Those versions sound better, but they are probably not yet (fully) acceptable.

Let's insert a "for" into version #3g to turn it into an extraposition construction (#3h), and see how it sounds:

  • 3.h How long will it take [for this letter to arrive at London]?

That version #3h sounds better to me, but it is probably still not yet (fully) acceptable.

As to which version would correspond better to the Japanese version #1, that's something that I can't help you with.

  • 1
    @Araucaria Yes, I had to stop and think a bit about it at the time--though, I thought my solution to be a good one as the term "semantic-subject" allowed me to side-step the entire thingie about syntactic functions versus semantic roles. I was also quite proud of the way I side-stepped the thingie about "it" and the NP "a letter" in the construction of "#2. How long does it take [a letter] to reach London?" – F.E. Nov 9 '14 at 23:03
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    @Araucaria A typical ELU thread full of grammar nonsense <== "a “noun phrase” is a phrase headed by a noun, while “NP” includes phrases of other sorts which can act in the same syntactic role as noun phrases." Lordy. I pity the students. (It doesn't help when the OP doesn't know the difference between direct and indirect objects.) – F.E. Nov 13 '14 at 2:06
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    @Araucaria ELL has better "saving" than ELU, where you might be able to actually recover your work (I was able to do that for an in-progress creation of an answer, which I thought I lost, but it was there when I tried to find it). -- It is 3:40 AM, and I'm going back to bed; I was lying in bed thinking things over, solidifying stuff and what not. bye. :) – F.E. Nov 13 '14 at 9:40
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    @Araucaria I had thought about that; it might depend more on the existence of the distribution of "No dinosaur skin left" in other types of sentences. And that there might happen to be a restriction on that specific example, so that "is" can't be placed there. Which could give weight to the 3 dependent parse, but doesn't necessarily eliminate the allowability of the 2 dependent parse--or so my thinking was going like that earlier when I was supposed to be sleeping. Bye for real. :) – F.E. Nov 13 '14 at 9:48
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    @Araucaria For a similar example: "There were (some) bones left (for us) to study". The two meanings: 1) Some bones were left on the table by the teacher for the purpose for us to study them; 2) Some bones happened to be left in the cave by time and floods and if we want to we can study them. – F.E. Nov 13 '14 at 19:17
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Is this sentence unnatural? No one person who was in the class can't answerd. 
And if this sentence is unnatural, Where is it that makes this sentence unnatural?

Yes, it does sound unnatural. In English, we generally use at to describe specific objects that describe a location:

I arrived at the airport.

I arrived at home.

The letter arrived at the post office.

Locations, such as cities or countries, are generally referred to with in:

I arrived in New York.

I arrived in England.

The letter arrived in London.

That last one should answer your question :)

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How long does this letter take to arrive at London?

This sounds unnatural to me, because there is no way of knowing how long this letter will take to arrive in London. Perhaps it will never arrive. Maybe the postman will lose it.

How long does it take a letter to reach London?

This is much better. We can analyse how long letters take to reach London, and say, on average, it might take five days. We cannot, of course, say how long a particular letter will take.


How long does this letter take to arrive at London?

If you were going to use this construction (eg. at a Post Office) I might ask:

How long will this letter take to arrive in London?

They might reply:

Probably it will take four to five days.

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I think the problem here is much simpler than others have made it out to be.

Arriving happens instantaneously.

I arrived at 2 o'clock.

When will you arrive? (In an hour.)

Because of this, it's unnatural to ask how long something will take to arrive. Other verbs would suit better, like the other one in your example.

How long will this letter take to reach London?

How long will this letter take to get to London?

Your original sentence is understandable, and by no means would I stop you mid-sentence to correct you, but (because you asked), this use of arrive is a bit odd.

I would change it if I were editing a formal English document, for example.


As mentioned in other answers, at is also not the correct preposition to use. Usually, in is used with large bodies, like cities and countries. For example, I would arrive in Oslo, but at my hotel, since a hotel isn't miles and miles around.

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