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What is the difference between the following two:

A young bird was flying in cold weather; after awhile, her wings froze up and she fell to the ground.

A young bird was flying in cold weather; after awhile, her wings froze up and she fell on the ground.

I understand that the first conveys the movement toward the ground, while the second merely says that she fell on the ground. But I am not sure which one to pick. Is there something more to the usage of these two prepositions?

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Short answer, no, theres nothing more to it. – Jodrell Aug 14 '12 at 13:02
I don't know if relevant, but "fell to the ground" sounds more formal, literary. I'd never use it in spoken English. (Perhaps consequently, it sounds more serious to me, like someone getting injured or killed, whereas the other form could describe a kid taking a tumble.) – Steve Bennett Jan 30 '14 at 9:14
up vote 5 down vote accepted

This may sound obvious, but on emphasizes what was landed on. What if the bird didn't land on the ground? There's a good chance that you'd use on if the bird landed atop something, and in if the bird landed inside something.

The bird landed on the picnic table.
The bird landed on the hood of my car.
The bird landed on the roof of our house.

The bird landed in the back of my truck.
The bird landed in the birdbath.
The bird landed in the woods.

So, on the ground is perfectly fine, but you can also use to the ground, when you'd rather emphasize the direction of the fall, as opposed to the landing place. Both can be found in literature:

Shortly afterwards the bat again fell on the ground and this time was caught by another weasel.1
A few hours later the bird fell to the ground with the arrow right through it.2

although, after running some Ngrams, fell to the ground seems much more common than fell on the ground,3 but there are some apparent exceptions.

1from The Bat and the Weasel, as told in 365 Bedtime Stories by Christine Allison, 1998.
2from Sky Stories: Ancient and Modern by Roger Ptak, 1998.
3It should be noted that not too many Ngram results link to references of birds falling to (or on) the ground, but far more refer to people instead – sometimes in drunken stupors, sometimes from sheer exhaustion, sometimes in shows of repentence or thanksgiving, or even as a result of battle wounds.

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What do NGrams have to do with it? Your answer is complete without the "argumentum ad NGram" kicker. – Robusto Aug 14 '12 at 11:50
@Robusto: I was merely curious about which would be more prominent, and thought I'd share a few of my findings, that's all. I didn't bother to paste the Ngrams, because, like you, I thought they were a minor aside. – J.R. Aug 14 '12 at 14:05

You can fall to the ground only if you are in the air.

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Does it mean the on version is wrong? – Noah Aug 14 '12 at 6:06
Let's say it would be unusual. – Barrie England Aug 14 '12 at 6:32
I would say this statement is incorrect. I could easiy say "the ranks of soldiers fell to the ground." This would not indicate that they were airborn. – Jodrell Aug 14 '12 at 10:39
I agree with @Jodrell. You can fall to earth if you are in the air, but you can fall to the ground while your feet are on it. – Robusto Aug 14 '12 at 11:57
Ngrams show numerous instances of the phrase "he fell to the ground" and I would doubt that they all refer to falling from the sky. – bib Aug 14 '12 at 15:46

When referring to human subjects, "Falling to the ground" is generally a little less violent/forceful. It seems to refer to your final state: you fell to "a position that was on or near the ground". You may or may not have actually impacted the ground itself. (You could be on your knees, on all fours, crouching/ducking, etc.)

"Falling on the ground" is more forceful. It seems to refer to the idea that you fell on the ground: you did actually hit the ground itself, which could leave you flat on your back or sprawling on your stomach/side etc.

When referring to inanimate subjects, the phrases are generally interchangeable.

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I becon to differ. My recollection of texts is such that falling to the ground has a more dramatic feel. Phrases such as "the mother fell to her knees in despair" are representative of this. – Chris Aug 14 '12 at 12:41
No disagreement on the sense of drama; "to the ground" is often used to convey drama. But note that you naturally substituted "to her knees" as equivalent to "to the ground". Whereas falling "on the ground" generally conveys something more like tripping, where you bodily land on the ground. – Bob Aug 14 '12 at 16:19
Agreed that 'to the ground' implies suddenness, force, drama, finality. 'On the ground' just tells us where, and is neutral as to damage or drama. – Barry Brown Aug 15 '12 at 7:28

Subjectively, I feel there is a difference between the two. Since the focus of "fell to the ground" is on the distance moved to the ground, I would expect the next sentence to focus on the damage to the wings or life of the bird.

Since "fell on the ground" is a much more common phrase, (fell on the stairs, fall on the playground, etc), it has its own feel. It would not be unlikely for the next sentence to say the bird got up and flew off again (without mentioning any injuries at all).

While the 'on' version may be wrong, it certainly doesn't sound wrong, and would sound quite natural in a child's story.

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I think the phrase fall on the ground is much more commonly used when with animate objects that are already at least partly grounded.

The fell on the ground in a tantrum.

The teenagers fell on the ground laughing.

I do not think this phrase is as frequently used for inanimate objects.

The terms fell to the ground and fell onto the ground could be used for animate or inanimate objects, regardless of their initial location.

As the case tipped, the books fell to the ground.

Tripping on the curb, she fell to the ground.

As the engine failed, the rocket fell to the ground.

At the end of the race, the runner fell onto the ground exhausted.

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