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it's been bothering me for quite a while, but I still can't make up my mind on what would be the proper way to say: "to do something in a (adj) way" using the word l'air Eg: she is knitting thoughtfully. I think we should use avec l'air (adj) but I'm not quite sure Could you please help me? Thanks

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I

If the context is that of someone lost in thought while doing something then, the usual preposition "avec" can be used.

  • Elle est en train de tricoter avec un air pensif. • Elle est en train de tricoter avec l'air pensif. (There is no significant difference between the use of a definite or an indefinite article.)

But you can do away with a preposition and use an apposition; if this is the chosen syntax, you can't use the indefinite article, though; you must use the definite article "le".

  • Elle est en train de tricoter, l'air pensif.

II

If the context is that of someone doing something with care, delicately (as in the example from English literature below (1)), then it's a bit different: you can't use the word "air" but you can use the expression "l'air de faire qqc".

  • Slowly, thoughtfully, Justine took another helping of spaghetti. (Mistletoe Man https://books.google.fr books ) (1)

  • Elle est en train de tricoter avec soin.

  • Elle est en train de tricoter avec l'air d'y mettre du soin.
  • Three questions: 1) Would the "gentiment/avec prévenance" sense of "thoughtfully" (He thoughtfully knitted scarves for all of us) fall under one of your two sections?... 2) Since OP seems to [also] be asking whether "avec" is the right (the only?) preposition to place between the [verb] and "l'air [adj]," mightn't s/he be interested in knowing that "d'un air" is also a possibility? ... 3) Shouldn't the OP be "warned" that using "[verb] de/avec un/l'air [adj]" instead of a simple adverb could imply that the actor is just pretending to be [whatever adjective] for the sake of appearances? – Papa Poule Oct 22 at 19:25
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    @PapaPoule 1) No, so as to render this idea some other expression, in which "air" can't be of any use, is needed. (e.g.: Plein d'attentions pour nous tous, il nous tricotait de plaisantes écharpes.) 2) That is an interesting remark, and I did think about it but neglected mentioning it for the reason that it is raises some incertitudes. As I see it, "d'un/de l'" is used when the appearence, which can be literally facial expression or figuratively a particular quality of an enonciation, is directly tied in to what is being said or also what is being done. (1/3) – LPH Oct 22 at 20:25
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    @PapaPoule (e,g.: D'un/avec un air de ne pas vouloir lui parler, le responsable laissait d'habitude tomber sur le bureau de Jean les papiers que celui-ci avait à travailler. • Elle lui soupirait des choses douces à l'oreille [avec / d'] un air de ne pas y toucher.) 3) I do no agree with your possible interpretation de "lair de mettre"; there is an implication that I do not pinpoint (2/3) – LPH Oct 22 at 20:25
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    @PapaPoule though, but it concerns the locutor's perception at large: s/he perceives what in her/his eye looks like what is asserted but no judgement is to be inferred as to the sincerity of the observable behaviour; more will have to be said. The perception might be that of a meretricious attitude or it could be a misintrepation of the signs, just a figment of the imagination, but unless that is made sufficiently precise in what follows (or precedes) the listener takes it in at face value. (3/3) – LPH Oct 22 at 20:26

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