I've looked up the phrasal verb fire off in the major dictionaries. Although no dictionary states that the phrasal verb suggests no intention of hitting a target. All the example sort of suggest so. Am I right or that's just a stretch?

The ship fired off warning shots

They fire off a volley of shots

Mexicans fire off guns to welcome the new year

2 Answers 2


There is nothing in the expression "fire off" to suggest the intent, or the lack of intent, to hit a target. However, that suggestion is carried elsewhere in the sentences you cite. A "warning shot," for example, is just that: a shot fired off to warn an adversary or threatening other against persisting in some action. Warning shots are aimed away from people (often times over their heads) as a means of intimidation. Likewise, shots fired off in celebration of an event are not intended to do damage--they are intended to create noise and merriment. These are usually shot into the air, with no intent to hit anything.

However, in your middle sentence, "They fire off a volley of shots," there is no indication of purpose or intent. It may be that this volley of shots is directed away from people, it may be that the shots are intended to kill, or to hit some other target.

In other words, you need more context to determine whether "fire off" in this sense indicates a desire to hit a target, be it animate or inanimate.

See this, from news reports:

From 1970 to 1975, the British military fired off 55,000 rounds of 5.9-inch (15-centimeter) rubber bullets in Northern Ireland, reportedly killing 13 people at a death rate of 1 in 18,000 rounds and resulting in a severe injury rate of 1 in 800.

Clearly, the military fired rubber bullets intending to hit their targets. It may not the case that the bullets were intended to kill--theoretically, they are designed not to kill--but they were fired off explicitly to inflict pain and to disperse crowds or otherwise disarm/disable the target.

  • Hmmm I'm confused then. What's the difference between fire and fire off? You can say you fire bullets / shots too.
    – Dunno
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:00
  • 1
    @Dunno You can also wake and wake up, etc. Synonyms are permitted to be phrasal verbs, too.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:10
  • @DanBron oh that simple. They're just synonyms. In the case of wake (up) and many other dictionaries says they're synonyms so I thought there was a difference
    – Dunno
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:12
  • @Dunno Yes, with the caveat that there's no such thing as an exact synonym.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:13
  • 1
    There really is no difference. There is an expression "fire off" that means to "say or write and send away rapidly, as in 'He fired off three more questions,' or 'She fired off a letter of complaint to the president,'" an idiom that derives from the sense of firing bullets. In this idiom, you definitely need to include the "off," but as for fired, in the sense of shoot, "fired" and "fired off" either can be used in all of the examples provided.
    – user66965
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:19

A phrasal verb is a fronted object complement. 'Wake up the boy' = 'Wake the boy up' = 'Wake the boy [[to] be] up'. 'Fire off a shot' = 'Fire a shot off' (presumably to make the shot be off {of the deck of the gunship}). Phrasal verbs come in two varieties: literal and idiomatic. In the idiomatic variety, the position is not literal -- it has either been inherited from an earlier literal use, or is chosen to contrast with an earlier literal use.

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