This book specifies the difference as:

martyr for something: smb. who is made to suffer severely for a cause

martyr to something: smb. who is acutely inflicted by something

Oxford dictionary also tells us this:

(martyr to) a constant sufferer from (an ailment):

Other online dictionaries don't seem to explicitly specify a difference, though all example sentences for "martyr to" contain an ailment.

Yet, I've seen the usage "He/She is a martyr to his/her cause/country" a lot. In fact, google gives more hits to the "to" use than the "for" use.

martyr to his cause: 315,000 uses vs. martyr for his cause: 285,000 uses

martyr to his country: 371,000 vs. martyr for his country: 266,000 uses

So is there still a difference between the two in modern/current use? Is this a case of colloquial use being inconsistent with grammatically correct use? Is this a US vs UK issue? Help, please? Surprisingly google is not yielding even a single article discussing this usage.

ETA: Ngram comparisons that have now only increased my confusion. It seems "martyr to cause" is significantly more common is usage than "martyr for cause". Diagrams for Cause and Country

  • Hint: In Greek, μαρτυρος means witness. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 23:11

3 Answers 3


There are actually two different meanings and usages of "martyr to".

Being a "martyr for his cause" (or country) is well-understood. It means the person sacrificed themselves for the cause. Being a "martyr to" something generally means that you suffer as a result of something: a "martyr to back pain" means that you suffer extremely from back pain.

The other use of "martyr to", means that his cause (or country) treats him as a martyr. For example "Joan of Arc is a martyr to the French", means the French consider her a martyr. The English, on the other hand, don't, so she is not a martyr to the English. Another example might be "Martin Luther King was a martyr to the American Civil Rights movement". Civil rights proponents considered him a martyr, other people didn't.

The many occurences of "martyr to his cause" and "martyr to his country" are most likely to be usages like that.


I don't think that book gives a very helpful example, as the sense of the example sentence is more 'he died, a martyr, for his country', where 'for' belongs to 'to die for', rather than 'a martyr for'.

The phrases I'm familiar with are 'a martyr to', which implies being a passive agent of an active, usually recurrent ailment (eg, 'He's a martyr to his gout'); and 'a martyr of', usually in the construction 'to make a martyr of someone', which implies an active executor, whose action in killing someone, will cause their death to acquire some kind of cultural or symbolic value.

  • In this case, would introducing an adverb and a comma make for a better example sentence? Ex: 'He died bravely, a martyr for his country'. Or would 'a martyr to his country' be a more correct construction? Here, the 'for' doesn't seem to belong to the "die" anymore. In any case, one's country seems to be closer to a cause than to an ailment, to me.
    – Shisa
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 11:54
  • @Shisa I still see 'He died bravely for his country' as fitting my example. I don't think a country can kill someone - political repression can, though, so you could say, 'He died, a martyr to political repression'. Alternatively, from the point of view of liberal activists, 'He died a martyr to the cause', particularly if had been assasinated. Had he voluntarily sought death, you might say, 'He died a martyr for the cause', which brings us back to the 'dying for' construction. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 12:49
  • I see the 'martyr to political repression' as fitting the samples given, since 'political repression' is more an ailment (something one can be a victim of) than a cause. But adding "died" to the sentence constructions introduces a complexity/tangent that doesn't answer my original question, just kinda obscures it? Let's forget the "He died a martyr" construction since that can be very sensibly read differently, and talk about the construction I asked about ie. "He was a martyr". Is a construction like 'he was a martyr for his country/religion' grammatical?
    – Shisa
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 13:28
  • @Shisa If you mean that his country(men) considered him to be a martyr, then yes, but you include 'religion' as an option here, And I can't see that working. 'He was a martyr', for me, implies 'He was [considered to be] a martyr'. Your ngram link examples seem to bear out this distinction. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 14:57

Martyr means witness in Greek, so martyr to should reasonably mean one who suffers for a cause — for example, a martyr to non-violence.

  • Hello, Anselm. Sadly, it is often unsafe to argue how we 'should' use words from how people centuries ago used them. Especially in a different language. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 14:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.