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When speaking of someone who lost their life as a result of accidental circumstances are the two phrases below interchangeable?

He was killed in an accident.

 

She died in an accident.

I've seen both used and I'm wondering if there is a rule here. Would we say was killed when the victim was affected by someone or something else? If so would we then say simple s/he died when the victim was the source of the accident?

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3  
the more general principle is that killed is more likely to be associated with death caused by deliberate action. But since this context explicitly states the it was in an accident, that potential distinction can't apply - so they're interchangeable. –  FumbleFingers Feb 1 at 15:44
    
Interchangeable. Although, killed sounds more violent. It also has a air of "I'm upset that this person died." Died in an accident sounds more passive. –  David M Feb 2 at 5:08

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think 'killed in an accident' would be more likely if the person met their death instantly. However if they died two days later, then perhaps 'he died as a result of an accident' might be more the tone in which it would be reported. Whichever way, the death certificate (in Britain) and/or the coroner's report, would read 'accidental death'.

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The distinction given in the question here is, I would say, almost correct.

In most cases, the two phrasings can be used interchangeably, but killed does imply that the victim suffered a death that was directly caused by the accident itself, and was probably also somewhat violent or at least unnatural. Died carries no such implications.

So, for example, if there is a car accident that isn't really particularly serious (everyone is unscathed except for minor cuts and bruises), but old Nan, 92, was so shocked that she had a heart attack from all the commotion and died from it… then it would be somewhat odd to say that she was killed in the accident. Just like it would be a bit odd to say that she was killed by a heart attack, but perfectly normal to say that she died of a heart attack.

Such situations are quite contrived, though, and far between. In any normal scenario I can think of, the two are interchangeable, except for the added idea of suffering an untimely, possibly violent death being present in was killed, where died is more distanced and neutral.

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Looking at the question you are asking and throwing in a little bit extra. I would say:

She died in an accident.

This is the simplest way to state it English. This construction is used for statements of fact. The victim died at 5:42pm.

he was killed in an accident.

This is more indirect, because the construction is passive. This makes it slightly more polite. See for instance this link for learners: http://pt.talkenglish.com/Grammar/active-passive-voice.aspx

They passed away in an accident.

Like many other languages, we have a verb that is considered a polite way of saying someone died -- specifically because it does not mention death or being killed directly. This is what will show up in many contexts like funerals.


So all three are interchangeable as to raw meaning but different in tone.

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Difference between killed and died

I wondered whether my blunt answer would be contentious. Maybe I should modify what I said and substitute "wrong to say" with "inappropriate to say", because I think that "killed" often sends the wrong message.

Let me try to clarify that with a few examples: A man gets lost in a desert and eventually expires from dehydration. It would be inappropriate to write a headline saying "Man killed in desert" because that would immediately suggest that the man had been murdered.

A policeman arrives at the scene of a car accident where there has been a fatality. No other drivers or cars were involved. Again, it would be inappropriate to write that the deceased driver had been killed. Better to say that he died (the scene of) the accident.

However, if a rally driver deliberately aimed his car at spectators, then I think it would be correct to use the word "killed" when describing how the victims had met their deaths.

To summarise, I think that the difference between "killed" and died" is that "killed" almost always involves an active agent, whereas "died" is more of an observation (perhaps leaving any judgement of the circumstances open to the reader). So your comrade could be killed by a stray bullet but passengers in an aircraft are not killed by a pilot who has a heart attack.

Martin - I have not trawled all the dictionaries, but my favourite, Chambers dictionary, begins (thus in my interpretation defining the most important meaning) with: To murder or execute; to deprive of life; to destroy; to nullify or neutralize...Incidentally I think that the point is made clearer by the related noun "killer" which Chambers defines as a person, creature or organism, chemical, that kills...

Geoff

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Killed involves an active agent, yes. But it does not necessarily involve a human agent who acts deliberately. A car crash, even one with only one person involved, is an active agent that causes death. Dehydration in the desert is also an agent, but semantically a less active one, so while you might well say that it was the dehydration that killed him, you’d be more likely to say that he died from dehydration than that he was killed by dehydration. (Incidentally, you should edit this into your previous answer, rather than writing a new, separate one—and why the new user name?) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 2 at 13:44

There is a clear distinction between killed and died. Killed results from a deliberate action. A person dies in an accident.

It would be wrong to say that someone (not somebody!) was killed in (say) a car accident.

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1  
Do you have any sources (such as reputable dictionary definitions) to support this? Googling define:killed the first online dictionary I see gives the example "her father was killed in a car crash" and I see this very recent BBC article in the Google results too 'Two killed' in incident at Scottish car rally –  Martin Smith May 31 at 19:27
    
This answer is, inappropriately pertinently put, dead wrong. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 1 at 0:14

Died is more euphemistic as compared to killed.

The president was killed in the accident at Southwest Avenue

has a sound of not showing much respect and/or not showing much importance hence trivial.

Where as

The president died in an accident at Southwest Avenue

shows more respect and hence euphemism.

It's analogous to the difference between Late Frank III and Dead Frank III.

Another example:

The terrorist was killed by the forces.

The forces died at the hands of the terrorist.

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