This question was asked earlier (not by me), but closed and deleted by a mod. But I thought it was interesting, because I didn't know the answer. So I'm reposting it....

The verb phrasal 'draw on' seems to have two conflicting definitions:

dictionary 1
to come closer in time "It became colder as night drew on."

dictionary 2
(of a period of time) pass by and approach its end:
"he remembered sitting in silence with his grandmother as evening drew on"

How is 'draw on' used by native speakers?

...that's the original. Here's my own additional research from OED:

draw B.VI.70 To draw near or approach in time.

draw in B.VII.82.f Of a day or evening: To draw to a close, to close in. Also of a succession of evenings in late summer and autumn: To become gradually shorter (as if contracting or shrinking in).

draw on B.VII.86.d To advance, approach, draw nigh.
86.e To draw near to death, be in a dying state.

So, to restate the original question, which of these does as night drew on mean? (I've no idea!)

1 as night approached
2 as night passed
3 as night drew to a close

  • We probably need more context to answer the question. This comes from a narrative of some kind. What time is it in the narrative? What's the narrator describing other than the fall in temperature? My feeling is that the default meaning is #1: the temperature always drops as the sun sinks slowly below the horizon. #2 is also possible. #3 is, for me, the least likely. I base this response solely on my decades of reading novels, short stories, poems, and other types of narratives. It's ambiguous, but context should make it clear.
    – user21497
    Jan 24, 2013 at 4:06
  • @Bill Franke: I don't follow you. I'm asking what night drawing on means, having suggested three possibilities. If the answer is "all of them, depending on what the speaker/writer intends at the time", just say so. Or maybe tell me that of 100,000 written instances of "night drew on", the meaning changes according to how long ago it was written. I don't know! Jan 24, 2013 at 4:17
  • M-W (dictionary 1) and OED B.VII.86. (based on B.VI.70) are practically identical, and the sense called for here; OED 86e is just a metaphorical extension. Oxford (dictionary 2) is about evening in the sense "twilight before night") not night, so irrelevant here (and that by is ambiguous). OED B.VII.82.f is, likewise, about day or evening; and is in any case a different phrase. Jan 24, 2013 at 4:18
  • @StoneyB: So this one is an "incorrect" usage? It says But as the sultry night drew on toward one o'clock, Bill Day and his party felt their spirits revive a little. How can night be approaching at one o'clock? Jan 24, 2013 at 4:24
  • 1
    @Fu: Yes, you've got it now. :-)
    – user21497
    Jan 24, 2013 at 7:48

4 Answers 4


These definitions and examples (except draw in, which is a somewhat different idiom) have a common theme:

  • It grew colder as night drew on ... as nightfall came closer and closer
  • sitting in silence with his grandmother as evening drew on ... as evening advanced toward nightfall
  • the sultry night drew on toward one o'clock ... progressed gradually toward one o'clock
  • He lay (as some say) drawing on Untill his breath and all were past and gone ... (this is a citation for OED 86.3) he lingered on his deathbed until he died

I think it's fair to say that draw on means, at bottom, “advance gradually”—usually with a sense of advancing inexorably, too, and often toward some goal, implicit or explicit. The finer distinctions are just imaginative ways people have found to employ the phrase.

And it should be noted that these are just the intransitive uses; OED also distinguishes three transitives (none very closely related to the intransitives).

But given that OED offers 70-some-odd different meanings of bare draw, perhaps we should be surprised that draw on has so few.

At any rate, in my experience, night drew on is usually a stock phrase for “night gradually approached”—it got darker and darker. But it might mean any of those other things, too.

  • I think there's a bit of "trickery" going on when you conflate approaching with what's effectively drawing to a close, in, for example, evening drew on and darkness (fell). It seems to me these are quite distinct meanings. I don't use night draws on for any of the three senses I put forward, but it seems obvious others do. Perhaps the question is - would any one speaker use it in all three senses? Jan 24, 2013 at 5:21
  • ...OED notwithstanding, the fourth example there reads to me more like a variant of to draw breath, rather than draw near to death. But it's only "as some say", and presumably it's a very old citation, so my modern-day parsing is probably irrelevant. Jan 24, 2013 at 5:33
  • @FumbleFingers Well, apparently nobody's used it in the deathbed sense since the 17th century. The other two? Sure. It's how Time works. If you're speaking about something in the future, it's drawing on towards its beginning. If you're talking about something you're in now, it's drawing on towards its end. (But if you're talking about something in the past, and it's non-cyclic, it's not drawing on at all - it's drawing away). Jan 24, 2013 at 5:34
  • @FumbleFingers In the 16th-17th centuries, draw still had mostly its original sense of "pull" = "drag" (same word), so the deathbed sense had a feel of laboring onward - we still say "dragging on", "time drags". Jan 24, 2013 at 5:38
  • Yes, I'd quite happily say as the night dragged on myself, to mean the time passed. But time dragging is invariably tedious/negative, and I'd probably use slipped along/away for neutral/positive contexts if I didn't actually stick with passed.. Jan 24, 2013 at 5:50

To draw in this sense means

to come or go steadily or gradually

Night draws on is not ambiguous and means it is currently night and nighttime we continue to progress through the nighttime period. You can add 'to a close' if you specifically want to point out that it's getting toward morning.

Night draws [near/nigh] means it is not currently night, but nighttime approaches. One might also say it is drawing toward night to indicate nighttime approaches.

It all comes from draw's base meaning of to pull, as night (or time in general) is pulled along inexorably.

  • also "to drag on", from your link.
    – Xantix
    Jan 24, 2013 at 8:09
  • I agree with this explanation, and can offer this exercise. Construct a sentence with one of the other listed possible definitions for as night drew on (for example, for #1: The boys had to cut their game short as night approached, and the horizons darkened.). Then, ask yourself, if I substituted as night drew on, would the sentence retain its original meaning? (In this example, I'd wouldn't think so – I'd want to stick with as night approached or as night drew near, as Jim said in his answer.)
    – J.R.
    Jan 24, 2013 at 9:54
  • Looking at instances of as (the) night drew on It's not usually easy to make a positive distinction between the approached and progressed senses. But after spending a few minutes with it, I can't see an overwhelming bias for one meaning or the other in those cases where I can be reasonably sure of the intended sense. Nor do I see any shift over time, or a UK/US usage difference. But there's no doubt both meanings are in fact used. Jan 24, 2013 at 16:20

I am being drawn in by the wickedness that lurks beyond the dusk. That wickedness is irresistible. It is pulling me in and seducing me with its suggestive whisper.

Night is fallen and, somehow, we are still waiting! I am growing impatient, with my lust being drawn across the chilly air, just as the night was drawing itself slowly and painfully, pulling and dragging itself that I could feel its anxiety.

As the night drew on, dragging itself in such manner, even as midnight drew by, I could barely any no longer withstand the stench of its anxiety.

I could not believe that I let myself being drawn into such occult.

I am drawing on the experience of my spirit guide. I am riding on her experience. I depend on her to show me the way to the wicked scene. That is because there is no experience of my own that I could draw from.

Just as the night seemed to be drawing down and hints of early morn appeared from across the horizon of the ocean, there we saw the occultation of the turtles laying their eggs underneath the sand.

"That was wicked cool", I whispered to my spirit guide, an experienced zoologist specialising in sea turtles.

  • You drew it on yourself. If you'd drawn on your coat, the night wouldn't have been so chilly. Jan 24, 2013 at 4:58
  • I'd have thought the fact that I cited OED definitions going up to 86 would be a good indication that there's no point in trying to illustrate all the possible usages of draw (you've barely scratched the surface, btw! :) Anyway, I asked about the meaning of one specific phrase; you haven't directly answered the question, and you've introduced a lot of irrelevant confusion, so -1. Jan 24, 2013 at 5:04
  • 1
    sorry @BlessedGeek, that was fun, but not an answer Jan 24, 2013 at 5:30

"as night drew on" - you can't tell
It either means as night approaches (more common) or as the night progressed.

If you are committing poetry - who cares?
If you are writing an accident report you should probably pick a less ambiguous, if less poetic, phrase.

  • I asked about as night drew on, so I hope that was a typo. But I'm still downvoting because I don't see this answer as being particularly informative. Jan 24, 2013 at 4:19
  • @FumbleFingers - the fact is that it could mean either. Not quite as bad as flammable/inflammable - but that's English for you!
    – mgb
    Jan 24, 2013 at 4:20
  • If it can have two meanings, what about three? Can draw on be used to mean draw to a close too? Jan 24, 2013 at 4:26
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers It could. Context is everything: if it's four o'clock in the morning, it means draw to a close, if it's four o'clock in the evening, it means drawing towards us. But the default cliché, if you just encounter the bare phrase, is the latter. Jan 24, 2013 at 4:33
  • @FumbleFingers - just ot add to the confusion "as the nights draw in" means the days are getting shorter ie, going into winter.
    – mgb
    Jan 24, 2013 at 4:34

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