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Not being a native English speaker, I still like to read in English from time to time. In my current book was written that someone "... was three days dying." Does this mean that the person died three days ago, or that the person has been suffering from mortal wounds for three days but is still holding on? The previous chapter with this person ended in him being on fire, but there was nothing said about whether he died. The next chapter about this person started with: "The (...) prince was three days dying."

Edit: Thanks for all the help. After this I read further and it became more clear that indeed the Prince was dead after three days of suffering.
To answer some of your questions, it is not translated, as a matter of fact, the writer was born in New Jersey. He is known to write a bit archaic though.
It could indeed well mean the writer wanted to emphasize his suffering since later in the book, someone who was had a long life of seeing people die, described it as one of the worst things he ever saw.
And furthermore, I left out where the prince was from, to prevent spoilers. This could have made it more difficult to google.

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Could be wounds or just became ill and died 3 days later. –  Oldcat Jul 31 at 19:26
    
I believe it's that he's been dying for three days. Dying meaning that he's sick. Could you post more context? –  George Pompidou Jul 31 at 19:27
    
there is more content now. –  Ruluhulu Jul 31 at 19:30
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To the @#@$#@# who voted to close this as general reference, I challenge you to provide ANY sort of link that explains this construction. (No, a link to the dictionary definition of the word "die" or "dying" does not qualify.) I just spent the better part of an hour looking, and I found NOTHING. –  Marthaª Jul 31 at 20:39
    
Was this translated? I skimmed through Google Books and usually found a comma between days and dying.... but I did find something: Maslama said, “O Messenger of God, surely I cut off his legs and left him only that he may taste the bitterness of the sword and the violence of death just as my brother did, for he stayed three days dying. Nothing prevented me from finishing ... 'The Life of Muhammad: Al-Wagidi's Kitab al-Mahjazi' The context seems to indicate suffering for three days until death. –  SrJoven Jul 31 at 21:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

This is a somewhat archaic construction. The more modern way to say the same thing would be

It took the prince three days to die.

In my mind, the "was [timespan] dying" construct does serve to emphasize the fact that the person was dying the whole time, rather than "working up to it" in a sense.

(And just to be perfectly clear, yes, it does mean that the prince is now dead.)

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A super minor issue with the modern translation: "It took the prince three days to die" doesn't necessarily capture the fact that he was in the process of dying the whole time (a decay of health). For example: someone finds out they have an aneurysm, and fears dying for three months. Though they're body was perfectly fine "It took them three months to die." –  xtraorange Aug 1 at 5:53
    
Would you provide a reference confirming that the "was [timespan] dying" implies the subject is now dead? To my understanding, it's just an alternate wording of "was dying for [timespan]", and it's possible to survive a period of dying - these are called "near-death experiences". –  talrnu Aug 1 at 12:51
    
@xtraorange: that's precisely what I said in the second paragraph. –  Marthaª Aug 1 at 17:14
    
@talrnu, it's very, very hard to Google this topic - even NGrams mostly returns results that are actually "somebody did something for three days, dying...". However, wading through the Google Books results to find the 19th century novels that actually use the construction in question, confirms my impression from a lifetime of reading that this phrasing was simply not used in cases where the subject recovered. –  Marthaª Aug 1 at 17:23
    
+1, but I've seen the sentences constructed "... was three days dying before miraculously recovering" before. The meaning here is "we/medical science thought he was going to die for three days, but he did not die and returned to health." Also, obligatory Monty Python reference. –  Patrick M Aug 1 at 18:09

My view is someone that received a mortal wound and took three days to die. It gives me the feel that the speaker is "Southern". I don't think a "Yankee" would use the phrase.

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But does that mean he is dead now, or still suffering? –  Ruluhulu Jul 31 at 19:39
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"Took three days to die" means that he suffered for three days and then died. –  LCountee Jul 31 at 19:48

Based on what you've provided, it sounds like the scenario was:

  • They lit the man on fire.
  • Due to this, he was injured in some major way (e.g. internally).
  • Over the course of 3 days, he was slowly dying from these injuries. Most likely getting worse after each day.
  • After 3 days time, the man died.

It may be worth noting for clarity that this does not mean that the man was still on fire during the entire event, but that he continued to live through these damages for those 3 days.

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I'm not going to downvote, but I would interpret it as "he could have died at any time in the three days before he expired," without the assuming he got progressively worse. In other words, closer in connotation to "he was on Death's door for 3 days." –  Patrick M Aug 1 at 18:12
    
There's definitely a lot of open area for letting the reader feel the description. The way you worded it does feel like it gives a better understanding of the man's condition. I suppose my route was their condition should have diminished since if they got better over those 3 days, the death wouldn't have happened. I appreciate the additional points of view. More to think about =). –  Xrylite Aug 1 at 18:21

This use of dying is a past continuous tense. It signals that the story is going to talk about what was happening during the three days the prince was dying. By dying, the reader should understand that the prince was mortally wounded, continuously getting closer and closer to death, and there was no hope of recovery, but he was not dead yet during this period.

Therefore you should conclude he "has been suffering from mortal wounds for three days but is still holding on."

A similar example of this use could be that a person became lost in the wilderness was three days walking. This descriptions covers a period when the person was walking for three days, and at the end of this period he still is walking, but at the same time the choice to use this specific time period implies that something will change at the end of the described period. For a person walking it could be any number of things. He could fall into a hole, for instance, or he could come upon a small town. For a person dying there are limited options of what will happen next so you should expect the book will announce that the prince has died in a few pages. Or Dr. McCoy from Star Trek could beam down and miraculously save him with his tricorder, but I suspect not.

But the point is that you can correctly say that someone was dying and that they recovered. For instance, two recent British newspapers: Northampton Chronicle: "Northampton mum who was dying of liver failure celebrates successful operation by running 10k for charity" http://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/health/health-news/northampton-mum-who-was-dying-of-liver-failure-celebrates-successful-operation-by-running-10k-for-charity-1-6098628 Mirror: "I was dying of anorexia - but getting pregnant saved my life" http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/dying-anorexia---getting-pregnant-3184535

It is also possible for the person to die, but not within the specific period being discussed as the time the person was dying. For instance, a recent Bloomberg article on Chaves says he "was dying in December" but then goes on to report Chaves actually lived until the following March. He didn't die in December. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-29/chavez-allies-knew-he-was-dying-in-december-correa-says.html

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In practice you would never say "three days dying" unless the person did in fact die at the end of the three days. –  Harry Johnston Aug 1 at 3:51
    
Harry Johnston I think that point should be understood from what I said in my opening paragraph? –  Brillig Aug 14 at 15:31

The construction

take + time specifier + -ing form (+ possible noun phrase)

is quite common with a noun phrase included

(eg 'federal prosecutors took three years building a case.'; 183 000 Google hits for "took three years building")

but seems rare without a noun phrase

(only 3 hits for "took three days dying").

Replacing 'take' by 'be' also gives seemingly rarely-used expressions (only 5 in total with 'building'):

eg 'MARSE DAVY was three years building his home'

'the school ... was three years building'

The latter example is a middle usage, as the school is not the agent. With

'He was X days dying'

X is the agent (!?), and again, the construction is rare. 'Dying' is probably the most commonly-used -ing form here, but other examples may be found:

'The lad was several hours lying in pain'

'Steamer ... was several hours lying at our wharf'

but these two examples date back to 1895 & 1844 respectively.

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