I have this question about the verb "run". According to definition 11a of this dictionary, "run" means "to go or extend in a particular direction" when used to describe roadways/pathways. But then there is this:

In Boston, a simple red brick path runs for 2.5 miles through the heart of the city, connecting 16 of its Revolutionary sites, ending at Bunker Hill.

,where the phrase "runs for 2.5 miles" does not fit the dictionary definition of "going or extending in a particular direction". Could the example sentence be poor writing?

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    The "path" is the Freedom Trail, and much of its length is brick sidewalk. A painted line runs along the trail. Because the Freedom Trail is made of ordinary bricks, it is meant to be walked on or strolled on. If you try running on it, you risk twisting your ankle. – Jasper Mar 1 '15 at 1:09
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    @Jasper - That's not the definition of "run" he's using here, but given that there's a regular organized run on the Freedom Trail, it is quite usable as a running trail. – Johnny Mar 1 '15 at 3:21
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    In this case, the "particular direction" is along the path. In other words, if you start at one end and go along the path, you will travel 2.5 miles before reaching the end in the linear path dimension, no matter how the path happens to twist and turn in the 2D/3D world. (If you're into math, it makes perfect sense expressed as a parametric equation.) – jamesqf Mar 1 '15 at 4:30
  • Regarding closing this question as off-topic: This question isn't answerable with a dictionary for two reasons: (1) It's about a dictionary definition. (2) The point of confusion has to do with the way verbs of motion describe shapes in English, and the way an English preposition can indicate that. Dictionaries don't explain those things because they go without saying to natives, but they're completely unexpected and baffling to many non-natives. – Ben Kovitz Oct 5 '15 at 17:26
  • @BenKovitz: You may wish to check how many of the Related Questions in the sidebar are by this same user asking about similar miniscule aspects of applying this same word in any conceivable fashion other than precise matches of dictionary entries. (I'll spare you the check: 8 out of 10. No, that's not an error.) – Nathan Tuggy Oct 5 '15 at 21:50

I'm not sure how you get that that doesn't fit the definition. It's describing the direction the path takes: it goes through the heart of the city (one of the examples in the definition is "the road runs through the mountain"). If you're hung up on "2.5 miles" not being a direction, look down very slightly from definition 11a to 11b: "used to describe the position of a road, path, etc." The phrase "a path runs for 2.5 miles" would fall under that definition, as would (for that matter) "a path runs through the heart of the city" or "a path runs for 2.5 miles through the heart of the city."

The sentence is not poor writing: it's perfectly idiomatic usage and fully compatible with definition 11.

  • Would the sentence "the path runs for 2.5 miles" by itself be poor writing compared to the more common "the path is 2.5 miles long"? – meatie Feb 28 '15 at 23:52
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    The two sentences are not "better" or "worse". Certainly it is more concise to say "the path is 2.5 miles long", but this is not necessarily better. The sentence you quote is of a style characteristic of tourist guidebooks. It would be out of place in a description intended for highway engineers who are interested in how many square feet of pavement the path contains. – WhatRoughBeast Mar 1 '15 at 0:25
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    runs actually makes more sense in context here. If the sentence said that the path were 2.5 miles long, I would be a little confused why they tole me the dimensions of a path. But by saying it runs, the connotation is of a thing that I could travel on where the length is less important than the fact I can travel on it. – rickcnagy Mar 1 '15 at 1:49

"Runs for 2.5 miles" is perfectly normal English.

One sense of for

The word "for" is being used in its sense of extension or duration, as in:

John and Marsha talked from 2:00 to 2:20 p.m. They talked for 20 minutes.

I commented to my dad about how big everything looked and how it seemed as if we drove for miles and miles and the mountains in the distance never moved or got closer. [Source]

I can see for miles. [Well-known song from the 1960s. The phrase literally means that I can see clearly across a long distance. In the song, it's used metaphorically.]

This email goes on for several pages.

Combining overlapping meanings

Many words in English, especially the little Anglo-Saxon words, mean many, many things. For example, "for" means: favoring, exchange, purpose, signification, correlation, and many other things. "Run" means to propel yourself on alternate feet without both feet on the ground at the same time, as well as: to operate (machinery, a business), to direct, to hurry, to travel quickly, to accumulate, to extend, and still other things.

A common way to reduce the ambiguity of these little words is to put two of them together, in order to evoke the meaning they hold in common—usually supported by still other cues in the context, of course. That's what's happening with run for in your example. Both of these words can carry the meaning of "extension"; putting them both together clarifies the meaning. One could also say "run 2.5 miles", which is fine, but including the word "for" reinforces the meaning of extension in the reader's mind.

Here are some other ways that "run for" can occur in the same sense as in your example sentence:

John and Marsha talked from 2:00 to 2:20 p.m. Their conversation ran for 20 minutes.

This email runs for several pages.

Interstate Highway 10 (I–10) runs for 2,460.34 miles, from Santa Monica, California to Jacksonville, Florida.

You can substitute run, run on, or run on for in place of run for in the above examples. "On" adds the suggestion that the extension or duration is exceptionally long. "Run on for" uses three words to reinforce the meaning while adding on's suggestion of "this is exceptionally long".

"Run" and "for" are combined to get their common meaning, but the primary meaning of run is not completely lost. "The path is 2.5 miles long" sounds dull and dry. "The path runs for 2.5 miles" literally just states the path's length, but it also evokes the idea of continuous motion in the primary sense of run, leading the reader to imagine traveling along the path for its entire length.

A few more run fors

Just so you don't think that combining "run" and "for" eliminates all ambiguity, here are a few other meanings they can make:

We ran for four miles, and then we were exhausted. [Running in its primary sense involving moving yourself fast with your legs.]

Terry Shiprock is running for mayor. [Seeking election.]

I run this business for pleasure more than for profit.

  • Slight off-topic comment. According to google searches, "the letter goes on for several pages" is much more common than "the letter runs/runs on for several pages". Could it be that "run" is not that commonly used for letters/emails? – meatie Mar 1 '15 at 5:01
  • @meatie- saying that a letter goes on for several pages means that the letter continues in the same fashion for several pages. Saying that a letter runs on for several pages is intimating that the letter contains no more useful information in those additional pages. – Jim Mar 1 '15 at 6:00
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    @meatie Indeed some of these expressions are more common than others, but don't confuse frequency with correctness. They're all correct and meaningful. The main thing is to notice the different shades of meaning. "Goes" is more abstract than "runs", so "goes" doesn't carry as strong a connotation of traveling along continuously. And "runs on for several pages" carries a stronger connotation of pointlessness than "goes on for several pages". – Ben Kovitz Mar 1 '15 at 7:36
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    @meatie If you're clear about the primary meanings of words, and you learn them in contexts that are familiar to most native speakers, then common sense will help you understand the extended meanings and connotations when those words are combined. Frequency counts and attempts to memorize all the variations won't won't give you a feeling for how these words' meanings shift and combine, and that feeling is really what you need to understand all these phrases and choose them in your own speech and writing. – Ben Kovitz Mar 1 '15 at 7:40
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    @meatie I wouldn't call either one poor writing relative to the other. Depending on the context, either one might be more suitable. If you want to be dull and dry (and often that's good), then "the path is 2.5 miles long" is better. If you want to stimulate the reader to imagine traveling along the path, as in the tourist guide, then "the path runs for 2.5 miles" is better. "Better" and "worse" have to do with what you evoke in the reader's mind. There can't be any general rule for what's better and what's worse to evoke. That's your choice as speaker or writer. – Ben Kovitz Mar 1 '15 at 22:43

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