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I know that 偷工减料 is frequently used to describe intentionally (and perhaps secret) shoddy construction. When I translate it, I usually say "Cut corners". However, I think 偷工减料 has a very negative connotation, whereas "cut corners" has a somewhat less negative connotation.

Does 偷工减料 have a much more negative connotation than "cut corners"?

Can I use 偷工减料 to describe intentionally purchasing inferior product that everyone knows about? For example, let's say that an IT department purchases a lower-end computer rather than a high-end (and perhaps more up to an acceptable standard) computer. They do so publicly and with everyone's knowledge. Can I call this "偷工减料"?

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4 Answers 4

偷工减料means maybe you need to use 10 tons of concrete, but you wanted to short costs, so you only use 8 tons of concrete. It's the same to other materials, you lessen the quantity so you can get momey from not using the expensive materials.

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偷工减料 is always negative by denotation, whereas "cut corners" carries a slightly negative connotation, if not neutral.

偷工减料 means

  1. using inferior materials to make substandard goods (its original meaning)
  2. slacking off, cheating in work

If a company does so publicly, people would refer to their products as 低端 (low-end). You often hear 低端产品 and 低端市场 in the news. The antonym is 高端 (high-end).

Another relevant idiom:

便宜无好货,好货不便宜。

Cheap products are not good; good products are not cheap. (Horrible translation but you get the idea!)

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偷工减料 means shoddy/poor workmanship and lousy/substandard materials. It is not something you would use to describe intentionally buying something that is inferior or less expensive. It is by nature something that is deceptive or dishonest or even corrupt and dangerous. It is more severe than cutting corners, which is sometimes associated with the term "cost down" if cost reduction is being done dishonestly.

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As the character "偷(to steal)" implies, the action of "偷工减料" is generally done secretly. I am not familiar with the phrase "Cut corners", so I can't make a comparison between them.

Take your case of purchasing computers for example.

  1. I am selling computers and the parts. A company listed the requirement of the computer(CPU model, RAM size, GPU model, etc) and we sealed a contract, so I will supply the company with the computer,say 100, with such a configuration and I will get $100,000 from the company. However, for some(say 3) computers, I select second-hand/old/flawed/other model(low-end) hardwares to setup the computer, because I can save the cost and thus make more money. There are only 3 bad computers out of 100 in total, so I think it's safe to do so. My such behavior could be called "偷工减料". Of course, this behavior is very negative, and the company will certainly sue me over this if it finds what I did.

  2. If the company itself just wants to save money and says,"the computers should not be so good, you can sell us low-end computers(I.e, 128M RAM, P4 processor, integrated GPU)" and I just satisfy this requirement, I should not be called "偷工减料". But the company's employers, like you, would say "公司真抠门!"(The company is so mean!)

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The dictionary definition is a bit misleading as 'cut corners' doesn't have very positive connotations. It means leaving out or failing to do things that should really be done or materials that should really be used. However, while cutting corners is less than ideal, it's not necessarily seen as fraudulent or cheating others, which is where it may differ in severity from 偷工减料. –  Bathrobe Feb 9 '12 at 7:23
    
@Bathrobe Really?Ok, I will delete my statement for "cut corners". I learned a new English phrase. Thanks! –  Huang Feb 9 '12 at 7:31
    
Upon reflection, 'cut corners' usually refers to an unwilling or undesirable kind of economising. Unwilling if you are in control of the budget but have no other choice, undesirable (and negative) if the contractor is in control of spending and is not telling you what he is doing. In the latter case it is definitely close to 偷工减料. –  Bathrobe Feb 9 '12 at 8:40

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