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I have a question about the usage of "trace through" here:

The idea that the famous trade-off between flat-tax efficiency and progressive-tax equity may not exist after all will be big news to fairness-minded Democrats! It will take many years to trace through the workings of these winner-take-all markets, to judge their significance in the economy over all.

But I couldn't find a dictionary definition that fit this usage of "trace through". Could it be an error? Would replacing "to trace through the workings of" with "to trace the workings of" be better?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because not every valid combination of words can be found in dictionaries, and both "trace" and "through" have their ordinary, straightforward meaning here. Jun 9, 2016 at 19:34
  • @NathanTuggy Dictionaries only have the transitive form for "trace" that would remotely work for the example above. No intransitive forms for "trace" could be found. Could you provide a link if one is available?
    – meatie
    Jun 9, 2016 at 23:32
  • I searched for define trace, and the first result was an inline definition that didn't specifically allow for intransitive use. But the second dictionary I tried has an intransitive listing. So does the third. The fourth doesn't use that term but does list an equivalent set of effectively-intransitive usages. Jun 9, 2016 at 23:59
  • This use is transitive. Substitute "sift" for "trace". Jun 10, 2016 at 0:45

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I think this is an interesting question. I think trace through is OK here, and I've seen it sometimes in writing. I actually like your example better with "through" than without it.

I think it's similar to sort through. You don't "sort your problems," you "sort through your problems." With both trace through and sort through, "through" implies that you're trying to find a path through your issues or through the workings -- things that are obstacles in your path.

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  • So, "to trace through" might be non-standard?
    – meatie
    Jun 10, 2016 at 2:32
  • I think what people are trying to say is that the verb can be either transitive or intransitive. So you can use I traced my past or I traced through my past. Whether traced through is a reasonable verb/preposition combination is a different question. I think it is perfectly fine and "standard," but others might disagree.
    – Ringo
    Jun 10, 2016 at 6:06
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The use of

to trace through

is correct in your example and means from the very beginning to the very end.

Your suggestion of

to trace

usually means to find the causes and effects from the very beginning to the current/present point.

Your example text implies that the complete effects of flat-tax vs progressive tax are not known at the present time and will need to be "followed through" ("traced through") until the effects are established and known over the course of many years.

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It's not a correct use of English, but you can deduce the meaning. The phrase they meant to use is a combination of "sift/dig/sort through" and "trace". "Trace" and "trace through" really mean the same thing, so it's a redundant phrase. Chalk it up to a mistake.

In almost every situation besides actually tracing a maze on a sheet of paper, "sort through" is a better phrase than "trace through".

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