1. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    which is the correct way?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Cacian, Nov 12, 2011.

    which is the correct expression?
    ''how long is a piece of string?''
    ''how long is a string?''

    and deos this mean : ''do you have all day''?
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    your first 'string' thing example is correct grammatically, but i don't recoginize it as a common 'expression'...

    the second doesn't make much sense, since there are all kinds of 'strings'...

    as for either of those being a sarcastic non-answer to 'do you have all day?' i've never heard either of them used that way, but the intent is apparently to show how silly the first question was, by answering with another question about something that can't be specifically quantified...
     
  3. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    The only expression I know (it may be British idiom, and it's fairly common) is in a situation like this:
    "It's going to need a long time to sort this out."
    "Long? How long?"
    "How long is a piece of string?" = A never ending/extremely long period
     
  4. Cacian
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    thank you for that.
    I think you are right.
    it means I might be sometime but not quite sure how long.
     
  5. Cacian
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    I see.
    so it is quantity that is not possibly measured.
    but if I look at is grammatically doesn't 'piece' indicate it can be measured?
     
  6. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    To refine Madhoca's explanation a touch:

    Person A: How long will the job take?
    Person B: No idea. How long is a piece of string?

    Person B's response does not indicate that he thinks the task will necessarily take a long time; it indicates that he is not able to say how long the job will take. He may encounter as yet unseen problems. It may be plain sailing.
     
  7. Cacian
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    thank you for the explanation that is better understood now.
    the question I was hoping to raise is that
    how long is a PIECE of string ? can have a definit answer because of the word PIECE.
    because a piece mathematically is measurable therefore the actual meaning it is conveying is not correct.
    does that make sense?
     
  8. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^
    Umm. Right now, I am holding a piece of string in my hands. How long is it?
     
  9. Cacian
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    but it is a measurable piece, since you are the one answering it.
    it is not an infinite piece.you can put a number to it right?!!
     
  10. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Certainly, I can put a number to it. (It is 4.6miles long BTW). But you were not able to. You couldn't put a number to it because you knew only that it was a piece of string and not that it was a piece of string 4.6miles long.

    Therefore, the expression is fitting and appropriate. The whole point is that the length of time a given task will take is unknowable until it has been completed (..that the length of a 'piece' of string is unknowable until it has been measured.)
     
  11. Cacian
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    Lol
    I see. I understood differently.
    thank you for explaining it to me .
    I thought the way the expression was put is that no one can establish how long is a string because it could not be measured ever
    as if to say a string is infinite.:p
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    no, not infinite... just that no one can know how long 'a' piece is, since 'a' piece can be miles long, or centimeters long... thus, unquantifiable...
     
  13. Cacian
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    it can be miles long because it is quantified to the word 'PIECE' which can only a certain length/width otherwise the word PIECE is then disqualified.
    the firsr definition tha comes up for the word PIECE is 'a part of a whole' and therefore it is quantified.
    I refering to PIE/PIECE .
    and so I understood it to not fit the idea of unmeasurable.

    even when we it use to say
    ''a piece of my mind'' (and mind can be regarded as unquanitified) it suddenly becomes quantirified because we have used the word piece.
    it means I'll tell you what I think/my opinion.
     
  14. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're right, art -- the expression either implies the string is too long to measure, or that it can be any length at all because ... well ... string can be cut to any length, of course :redface:
     
  15. mammamaia
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    cacian...

    you seem to be obsessed with arguing and trying in vain to prove you're right, instead of paying attention to all the reasons we've given for why you're wrong...
     
  16. Cacian
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    lol..I am trying to make sense to why I thought it differently but I can clearly the logic behind all answers.
     
  17. Manic Writer
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    Good Lord! I would rather be sitting writing than spending time on the forum arguing!
     
  18. Cacian
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    arguing?
    dicussing is what you mean.
    how else do you expect me to write?
    my computer keyboard unfortunately does not do it for me.
    the fun is in the interaction then the thinking then the writing
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "How long is a piece of string" is an idiomatic expression that means "it could be any amount". How long will it take? How long is a piece of string. How many people will you need? How long is a piece of string. How much profit do you expect to make? How long is a piece of string. So it's not quite the same as "do you have all day". Maybe it will take all day -- but maybe not. Who knows? It's a sort of a verbal hand-wave.

    I wasn't aware that this was a specifically British idiom, but it does seem to be. Because it is an idiom it would be very unusual to vary it, and saying something like "How long is a string?" would mark somebody for whom (British) English is a bit of an uncertain area.
     
  20. digitig
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    The standard (British) playground response to "How long is a piece of string?" is "Twice the distance from the middle to the end." Which of course leaves it completely undefined, which is the point.
     
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  21. digitig
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    Cacian: This is an "idiom" in the strict linguistic sense. It is a fixed expression, the meaning of which cannot reliably be determined from the actual semantics of the utterance. In other words, it's useless to try to apply logic!
     
  22. leafmould
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    Hi all!

    I've always thought it meant:

    "Dunno".

    Another goodie is:

    "Has the Pope got a tall hat?", as a reply to a question.

    It means:

    "Obviously"........"Undoubtedly".

    I'm English, from t' north, and there are many such phrases in daily use there. I suppose new ones get added all the time, but I've been away a while.


    Nice forum!
     
  23. digitig
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    Pretty much. In the context of a question asking about an amount, and in the context of something indeterminate. You wouldn't say it in answer to "How far is it from London to York" because that's not indeterminate even if you don't know. You might say it in answer to "How long does it take to travel from London to York" because it depends on how you travel, whether there are any engineering works on the railway or roadworks on the motorway and so on.
    And its variations...
     
  24. Arathald
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    I disagree with this (if I'm understanding it correctly). Using the indefinite article "a" changes the meaning of this sentence quite a bit. It makes it refer to any peice of string, known or unknown, but not to a specific peice.

    Consider the sentence "How tall is an African elephant."
    This doesn't refer to a specific elephant, it's asking for a generalization. Here, since African elephants tend to be of a certain size, this can be answered (mostly) definitely, with a range or an average.

    A peice of string, however, doesn't have a range of normal lengths or an average size. It's too general to give a definite answer to. As other folks have said, that is the reason for this expression: it has no answer.
     
  25. digitig
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    Over-analysing. As I've mentioned, it's an idiom: you can't get at the meaning that way. You can use "How long is a piece of string" as the answer to "How tall is an African elephant." And the answer to both is, "it depends...".
     

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