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I'm curious about the choice in wording in the following sentence:

L'installation terminée, la ville attendit son évêque à l'œuvre.

First, could it also be expressed by changing the direct object to l'œuvre? As follows:

L'installation terminée, la ville attendit l'œuvre de l'évêque.

Second, the idea is that they were waiting to see how he would conduct his work, but that idea gets condensed with the prepositional phrase: attendit ... à l'œuvre.

Is it common to express it this way — that is, by making the person the object of attendit while expressing the anticipated activity, deeds or behavior with the prepositional phrase: à [activity]?

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The expression attendre à l'œuvre is perfectly correct and still used nowadays, in particular in the sentence on l'attend à l'œuvre.

It means to be in the expectation, waiting for someone to act.

Attendre l'œuvre is a possible expression but has a different meaning. Here we expect a masterpiece to be produced.

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  • L'installation terminée, la ville attendit son évêque à l'œuvre.

This sentence is not usual; "attendre à l'œuvre" is very rare in modern vocabulary. People are much more likely to say "attendre de voir qqn à l'œuvre". (ngram)

  • L'installation terminée, la ville attendit de voir son évêque à l'œuvre.

Expressions such as "Passer à l'œuvre", "se mettre à l'œuvre" and "attendre à l'œuvre" do not imply any work of art, any material result of applying one's art or technology, although this can still be the case; "œuvre" has a figurative meaning here, and this locution means "to wait for someone to get into action", whatever the action (frankly jocularly you can even say, for instance of two bank robbers that "Ils ne passent jamais à l'œuvre (rob a bank) sans avoir fait une prière que leur succès soit assuré.").

No, this linguistic 'shift" in the expression from the usage of "voir à l'œuvre" to "œuvre" is not a common feature of the language but it can be found in some contexts: if there a work of art some sort involved, there is no reason for not using the word "œuvre" that translates "work".

  • Ils s'étaient finalement mis à l'œuvre et le résultat n'était pas sans splendeur ; la partie de charpente déjà assemblée avait la marque d'une œuvre d'artisans chevronnés.

Complement

After the revelation in a comment that this locution is found in Victor Hugo I think that this can mean "attendre de voir qqn à l'œuvre"; it seems to me that nowadays this wouldn't be put in the manner of Victor Hugo. What has been said in the answer, however remains valid.

The use of that locution seems very rare: https://www.google.com/search?q=%22attendre+%C3%A0+l%27%C5%93uvre%22&safe=active&filter=0&biw=1056&bih=553. On ne la trouve ni dans le TLFi, ni dans le dictionnaire de l'Académie ni dans le Littré.

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  • 2
    This is a quote from Victor Hugo.
    – Sid
    Nov 2 '20 at 15:05
  • @Sid Je ne connais pas cet usage, je vais essayer de voir si je trouve quelque chose.
    – LPH
    Nov 2 '20 at 15:07
  • @Sid It's very rare and old; I don't know what it means exactly, may be "attendre de voir qqn à l'œuvre". That is all we would say nowadays. google.com/…
    – LPH
    Nov 2 '20 at 15:14
  • @LPH Isn't it astonishing that you maintain a statement judging a sentence as being incorrect even after being informed that its author is Victor Hugo?
    – jlliagre
    Nov 2 '20 at 20:50
  • @jlliagre Right, I should do something about that.
    – LPH
    Nov 2 '20 at 21:43

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