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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?

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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
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Your edit ("dove after it") is actually perfect, I think. –  Marthaª Jun 28 '13 at 14:56

5 Answers 5

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."

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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.

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Thanks for the suggestion. –  janoChen Jun 28 '13 at 14:36
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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.

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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
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@EdwinAshworth This isn't the right time nor plaice to make such puns. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 20:47
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@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."

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

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Seagulls don't have paws. They have... they have... claws, webbed feet? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 12:47
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Empty-clawed? >.> Empty-beaked? There's just so many ways to have fun with this. –  Corina Jun 28 '13 at 12:48
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"fish-less", "prey-less"? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 28 '13 at 12:50
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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

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