English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Can I write the following?

One of the seagulls spotted a fish and dove after it, but came up empty-handed

If not, what other word I can use to replace empty-handed?

share|improve this question
I've never thought of that before. I suspect "empty-beaked" does not exist but it's a good question nevertheless! :) – Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 12:46
I have no problem with "empty-handed", but I'm quite puzzled at "dropped itself into the water". Dropped? How would one go about dropping oneself? – Marthaª Jun 28 '13 at 14:08
@Marthaª I think you're right. What other phrase could I use instead? Darted into the water? – janoChen Jun 28 '13 at 14:25
Your edit ("dove after it") is actually perfect, I think. – Marthaª Jun 28 '13 at 14:56
up vote 14 down vote accepted

It is most definitely acceptable to use the phrase empty-handed to describe animals.

Even if the animal you're referring to has no hands, the phrase empty-handed is understood to mean "having acquired nothing."

share|improve this answer
To add to @EvanTeitelman's answer: English is piled high with metaphor (this very sentence is an example!). Using "empty-handed" is a metaphor, and readers will instinctively know that it is not meant literally. – Paddy Landau Jun 28 '13 at 17:13

You can write simply came up empty to indicate that its attempt was unsuccessful. (see m-w.com's definition, below item 6.)

As pointed out in comments, "dropped itself into the water" sounds a bit off. I would suggest something more like this:

One of the seagulls spotted a fish and dove after it, but came up empty.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for the suggestion. – janoChen Jun 28 '13 at 14:36
Or, in British English, "dived after it". dove as the past tense of dive is N.American. In Br.Eng. "dove" is a noun referring to a type of bird. – TrevorD Jun 28 '13 at 14:42
@trevord, it did occur to me that perhaps I should mention that option. (note, though, that "dove" the bird is pronounced "duv" (like "love" or "shove"), while "dove" the past-tense action is pronounced with a long o (like "rove" or "clove"). – Hellion Jun 28 '13 at 14:48
I agree with you on the pronunciation - and I think I read it that way automatically - but I can't say how a Brit who hasn't come across dive meaning dived before would pronounce it when first seeing it. :-) – TrevorD Jun 28 '13 at 16:37
@TrevorD I think many people would say "dove in", which makes it much easier to parse. – Lucas Jun 28 '13 at 17:41

Gulls have webbed feet with small talons. Empty-taloned or empty-clawed appears to be a reasonable description.

share|improve this answer
But do seagulls catch fish with their beaks or with their feet? – Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 13:43
@Mari-LouA: Saying the seagull was "empty-beaked" would probably work. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jun 28 '13 at 14:26
@Mari-LouA: Have you never seen seagulls with fish fingers? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 28 '13 at 18:39
@EdwinAshworth This isn't the right time nor plaice to make such puns. – Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 20:47
@TrevorD You can't batter me! Not a sole in the world can. – Mari-Lou A Jun 29 '13 at 11:57

I would write "the seagull missed its mark."

share|improve this answer

I don't see why you shouldn't use empty-pawed instead. It's about as accurate as empty-handed, but cuter.

share|improve this answer
Seagulls don't have paws. They have... they have... claws, webbed feet? – Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 12:47
Empty-clawed? >.> Empty-beaked? There's just so many ways to have fun with this. – Corina Jun 28 '13 at 12:48
"fish-less", "prey-less"? – Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 12:50
Definitely not. Empty-handed is largely metaphorical (if I fail to get a bank loan, I could emerge empty-handed without implying that I expected literal fistfuls of cash), but empty-pawed is neither idiomatic nor anatomically accurate. – TimLymington Jun 28 '13 at 14:23
Ha, maybe I should use empty-beaked just to make the reader laugh. – janoChen Jun 28 '13 at 14:23

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.