slap (at) his pockets

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redgiant

Senior Member
Cantonese, Hong Kong
The big man circled to take the other chair, slapping at his pockets as though searching for something. "I'd offer you a cigarette, but I can't seem to find -"

Source: Timepiece, Heather Albano
Background: When William and Annie were arguing with the staff of an orphanage over the release of her daughter, the overseer, a heavy set middle-aged man, came out of his study to see what the commotion was. Nothing was set in stone in that regard, so he invited William in for a talk, but closed the door on Annie before she had reached it. He gestured for him to sit down and slapped at his pockets for a cigarette, but couldn't produce one.

If I left out "at" (slapping his pockets), would it lose the sense that he was patting on and off his pockets"? Would you find it weird without "at"?
 
  • heypresto

    Senior Member
    English - England
    If I had come across the sentence as you are proposing - without 'at' - I probably would have understood what was meant and just carried on reading.

    But, having seen the sentence presented with the 'at', and given the choice, I think it's better. It's somehow more descriptive of the action. You can clearly picture what he's doing.

    That's probably why Ms Albano put 'at' in. ;)
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    With prepositional verbs, 'at' often adds a sense of "aiming at, but not necessarily hitting". With slapping (at) pockets, there's no possibility of actually missing the pockets, but 'slapping at' is a bit more casual - slapping in the general direction - whereas 'slapping pockets' definitely means hitting the pockets each time you slap. It's a very minor difference here, but 'slapping at' conveys a more vague and indefinite action.
     

    redgiant

    Senior Member
    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    Thanks, heypresto, entangledbank. I agree that the original sentence adds description
     

    redgiant

    Senior Member
    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    With prepositional verbs, 'at' often adds a sense of "aiming at, but not necessarily hitting". With slapping (at) pockets, there's no possibility of actually missing the pockets, but 'slapping at' is a bit more casual - slapping in the general direction - whereas 'slapping pockets' definitely means hitting the pockets each time you slap. It's a very minor difference here, but 'slapping at' conveys a more vague and indefinite action.
    Yes, after the man said he didn't have a cigarette, William knew that was some kind of etiquette that demanded he offer a cigarette in his turn. Perhaps that explains his casualness - The man was pretending to search for one to give William a cue.
     

    redgiant

    Senior Member
    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    Example:
    After I finished slapping my hands against my thighs, alternating back and forth between butt cheeks, my eyes stopped at what was now two dollars and 79 cents of debt I was responsible for.

    Source: The Next Time You Order Coffee, Make Sure You Have Your Wallet With You

    Background: The writer shares his embarrassing experience at Starbuck where he didn't miss his wallet until the barista brought the coffee he ordered and asked for payment ($2.79). He realized he had left the wallet next to the home computer.


    I'd like to revive this thread to see if there's any difference between "slap at" and "slap against".
    Does "slapping my hands at my thights" mean pretty much the same thing as "slapping my hands at my thights"?
     
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