The only source I could find for a definition of this phrase was Wikipedia, which states a mortal wound "leads directly to the death of the victim. Death need not be instantaneous, but follows soon after." The rest of the article seems like speculation.

The crux of my question is these two points:

  1. Must a mortal wound lead to death?
  2. Is declaring that something is a mortal wound equivalent to saying that death is certain and unavoidable in the present situation?

For example, if a wound is bad enough that the victim will bleed out unless he receives appropriate medical attention immediately, is the wound a mortal wound? Could the same wound be a mortal wound in one situation and not in another, depending on whether such attention is available? That is, does a mortal wound describe the wound itself, or the result of that wound?

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    He was mortally wounded normally implies that he died there or soon after. Otherwise it would not have been mortal. "..which leads directly to the death of the victim"
    – mplungjan
    Jun 24, 2013 at 9:02
  • Is it necessarily an either/or question (re: last sentence)? How about the possibility that mortal wound describes the wound itself, in terms of its results?
    – LarsH
    Jun 24, 2013 at 17:59
  • I think it is worth adding that "mortally wounded" is used colloquially quite often as is "mortally offended" - this obviously does not have anything to do with death but rather that there is a tendency to exaggerate for effect in today's use of the language.
    – Sam
    Jun 24, 2013 at 21:30
  • "leads directly to the death of the victim. Death need not be instantaneous, but follows soon after." I'm not really fond of this definition, especially in the context of fiction. E.g. say I received a wound that would have been fatal, but was instantly healed at the last second by a wizard. If I strictly follow that definition, then I would have to dumb down the severity of my wording by using less potent phrasing, all to accommodate an extraordinary circumstance. Near-fatal or near-mortal just doesn't have the same punch, from a storytelling standpoint.
    – arkon
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:49

4 Answers 4


Not only must a mortal wound lead to death, but it must have led to death. "Mortal" means the victim has passed. "Mortal" does not mean "potentially mortal if left untreated". Because then every wound is mortal. You can die from a papercut. In fact Wikipedia goes on to explain just that.

Likewise, when Wikipedia says "Death need not be instantaneous, but follows soon after", it refers to the past, not the future. It means to say that whether or not the death was instantaneous, if you can pin it down to a particular wound, then that wound was mortal.

And yes, mortal wound describes the wound itself. It does not describe the result of that wound. The word for the result is death.

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    Curious that one can receive a mortal wound, but not have a mortal illness or have a mortal accident: those two must both be fatal not mortal. Is it a matter of volition?
    – tchrist
    Jun 24, 2013 at 11:20
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    Which, of course, leads onto the question of whether, in a fatal accident, the fatality must occur almost instantaneously, or at least at the scene of the accident, or can it still be a fatal accident if death occurs subsequently in hospital but as a direct or indirect result of the accident?
    – TrevorD
    Jun 24, 2013 at 12:56
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    @tchrist I've heard the phrase "mortal illness" before. The medical world uses Mortality and Morbidity Reports to track diseases/etc. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morbidity_and_Mortality_Weekly_Report Jun 24, 2013 at 12:59
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    Please suggest a replacement phrase since it is wrong: "X was was left mortally wounded by a knife-wielding drunk. If Y had not found him, he would not be alive." Jun 24, 2013 at 13:37
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    @aitchnyu I've already suggested alternatives in my answer! In your example, you can simply omit "mortally", since your second sentence says all that is necessary.
    – TrevorD
    Jun 24, 2013 at 13:58

As @mplungjan has said, I would suggest that it describes the result of the wound. For other contexts you could use expressions like:

The wound nearly proved fatal (mortal).
It would/may have been a mortal wound had he not been treated so promptly.

Unless the wound actually proved fatal ('mortal'), any other attributed meaning would be speculative.

  • IMHO, this can undermine storytelling by weakening the reader's mental image of the scene. A near-mortal wound simply sounds less frightening than a mortal one. I feel like there should be a better alternative.
    – arkon
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:51
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    @b1nary.atr0phy: Words are not defined according to whether they help or undermine story telling! The author needs to choose appropriate words - not vice versa!
    – TrevorD
    Apr 12, 2016 at 9:57

"Mortally wounded" is used to describe a wound that has already killed somebody.

If used to describe a wound on a living person/animal, then in common usage it would be implied that either you think the person is going to die from the wound, or you have foreknowledge that the person is going to die, such as a narrator in a story.

If someone was wounded, but recovered, then another description should be used, such as "critically wounded" or "severely wounded".

  • "Mortally wounded is used to describe a wound that has already killed somebody." No, that's not a prerequisite. Did you read the first sentence of OP's post? "Death need not be instantaneous, but follows soon after." I.e. the victim is not necessarily dead at the time the phrase is used.
    – arkon
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:53
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    @b1nary.atr0phy: ... and did YOU read the second paragraph of the answer above: "If used to describe a wound on a living person/animal, ..."?
    – TrevorD
    Apr 12, 2016 at 9:59

meaning of "mortally wounded as distinguished from fatally wounded" is important in Philippine criminal justice. It's meaning can spell the difference between frustrated and attempted killing. The crime is consummated homicide if one inflicts upon another a "fatal" injury leading to the latter's death. If he survives the injury that by it's nature if left unattended medically, would lead to death, the crime is frustrated homicide. If the injury is of such character that the victim needs no medical attention to survive, the crime is attempted homicide. In the frustrated phase, all the acts of execution in the crime of homicide has been performed and there is nothing left for the perpetrator to do. While in the attempted stage the assailant has still to inflict a "mortal injury". Hence "mortal" is used commonly to describe injury in the frustrated stage and "fatal" in consummated homicide.

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