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In a recent essay of mine, I accidentally mixed up the grammatical cases in an idiom. Namely, I wrote:

овчинки выделка не стоит

The most common variant of this idiom is:

овчинка выделки не стоит

My teacher marked my variant as a mistake and reduced my mark accordingly.

But did I really make a mistake? Doesn't my variant make sense? In English, you can say it in both ways:

(1) The reward isn't worth the effort. (Example)

(2) The effort isn't worth the reward. (Example)

Furthermore, Google returns a few dozens of results with my variant.

Before I confront my teacher with this, I need to be sure that I am right, so I am humbly asking native speakers to share what they have to say.

  • 1
    yep, it's a mistake – shabunc Feb 2 at 13:04
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    About 20 results of "овчинки выделка" vs 300,000+ "овчинка выделки". The only thing your google search proves is that people make mistakes. – Ivan Milyakov Feb 3 at 6:31
  • The word выделка cries that you are intending the idiom rather than any other phrase, because the word is either archaic or jargon, so it is not used in standard language outside of this saying. The standard word would be обработка. – Anixx Feb 3 at 10:09
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овчинка выделки не стоит

In this case it's an idiom (we're not talking about an actual sheepskin here) and idioms are much more static than normal sentences.

So yes, it does sound like a mistake.

UPDATE:

Same as in English, you could say:

  • Награда не стоит усилий. OR:
  • Усилия не стоят награды. OR EVEN:
  • Усилия и награда не стоят друг друга / несопоставимы.

to mean the same thing: 'the effort is worth MORE than the reward'.

BUT none of these sentences are idioms.

That's the thing about idioms - they have to be reproduced exactly, even when they no longer support the current grammar: притча во языцех, не зная броду... Otherwise they sound like an error or, at best, a pun.

English example: you would barely say 'Have you any wool?' unless you were singing Baa Baa Black Sheep.

6

The set phrase:

Овчинка выделки не стоит

literally means [This] sheep's skin isn't worth processing.

Meanwhile:

Oвчинки выделка не стоит

translates as [This] processing isn't worth sheep's skin, which is strange.

  • But in English, you can say it in both ways: (1) The reward isn't worth the effort. (2) The effort isn't worth the reward. Why doesn't it work in Russian? – Mitsuko Feb 2 at 12:35
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    @Mitsuko It so happens that for the English saying both variants can be interpreted in a some correct way. You can both overdo with the effort getting unsatisfactory results (a direct one), and to get underdone results by the effort (a swapped one). However, a Russian variant about sheep's skin is not so lucky - the reversed variant happens to have no sense valid for the saying. – Arhadthedev Feb 2 at 12:57
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    In English, sentences (1) and (2) mean exactly the same thing. They are equivalent. Just check the links provided in my answer. – Mitsuko Feb 2 at 13:02
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    @Mitsuko, you are right, the English ones are. But the Russian one is an absolutely independend story. It is not derived from the English saying, they just happen to have the same morale. So possibilities of the English one do not influence possibilities of the Russian one and vice versa. Hovewer, be there a direct translation ("результат не стоит затраченных усилий", the result isn't worth the effort spent), you could legitimally swap its parts as well. – Arhadthedev Feb 2 at 13:22
  • It so happens, that Russian phrase is too narrow. It talks about a vast amount of time that is required to be spent to process the skin. So here is its meaning - you see that all this time will be just wasted with no worth outcome. The processing is not a problem here, but the skin, so we can't put it as a subject by swapping parts. – Arhadthedev Feb 2 at 13:22
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First, as others say, it is an idiom. When someone hears or reads the phrase, their brain automatically parses it as the idiom they know, and does not notice the different endings.

Second, for me your variant while grammatically correct, would have a different meaning. The usual variant would mean "the subject is worthless" while your version would mean "the processing effort is too much". But as I already said, as this is an idiom, the most speakers would not notice that you modified the expression or would think this is a typo.

I also want to highlight that in certain interpretation your version can be seen as meaning something the opposite: the processing effort is so little that it even does not worth a sheep skin, if the sheep skin is meant to be not the subject of the work (on which the processing is done), but rather some small unit of value (and the subject of processing is omitted).

This may be understood so in circumstances where sheep skin is used as a currency, for instance. You can substitute here "копейка", so to get "копейки выделка не стоит" to mean the processing is very cheap.

In English you have a distinction between

The processing does not worth the sheep skin (skin is the subject of processing)

and

The processing does not worth a sheep skin (skin is the unit of value)

Since Russian lacks articles, you can interpret this the both ways.

When you use the idiom the standard way, the ambiguity disappears.

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Yes and no

Yes, it is a mistake to make changes to a Phraseme and still expect people to take its original meaning. However, I'd like to focus on the fact that this particular phrase is a phraseme, and not an Idiom. An idiom can't be explained by the meaning of its components, whereas both the original phrase ("овчинка выделки не стоит") and your variant ("овчинки выделка не стоит") can be.

By modifying a phraseme, you can highlight reader's attention to the subtle differences in meaning that this change can create. Changed phrase can even get a living on its on, like the memorable "Вот где собака порылась".

However, in your case I don't think that you tried to be funny or clever. You didn't seem to draw any attention to your subtle modification. Even if you did, I can understand that your teacher may not appreciate this kind of cleverness, and flag it as an unequivocal mistake.

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Actually, you can say this in both ways. The meaning of this really does not change and the listener will understand you.

However, here we are talking about an established expression that sounds like “овчинка выделки не стоит”. So if this counts as an error, it is only because you incorrectly quoted the proverb.

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