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Why would someone say "left for dead" but not "left to die" or "left for his/her death" ?

I'm not a native English speaker but I do understand the meaning of that phrase. From a grammatical point of view, why would we use an adjective here ?

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  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! Have you done any research to confirm that the other expressions are not used? If so, could you please include this information with your question. Jan 4, 2017 at 0:21
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    "Left to die" sounds fine to me. Interesting question though. Jan 4, 2017 at 0:21
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    It's an idiom. It need not "make sense". But it implies that the individual being discussed, while not dead, might as well have been, and likely would be soon. I suspect that the idiom arises from the practice of leaving grievously injured soldiers on the battlefield, vs attempting to "rescue" them. Remember that the battlefield hospitals did not begin to be used until roughly 1850.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 4, 2017 at 0:22
  • I think the word death here is a noun not an adjective, since it can also be a noun
    – Ali_R4v3n
    Jan 4, 2017 at 0:23
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    "Dead", in the idiom, can be interpreted as either an adjective or a noun. In either case the implication is that the person might as well be dead, as the injuries they've suffered are considered fatal, and no medical attention is apt to be forthcoming.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 4, 2017 at 0:26

4 Answers 4

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"Left for dead" and "left to die" are both used. In fact, "left to die" is somewhat more common. (See the ngram below.)

The two, though, have slight different meanings.

  • To leave someone to die implies that you know the person is alive. (If person is to die they can't be dead yet.)
  • To leave someone for dead is to assume the person is dead, or to as if the person were dead.

You ask why we would use for dead. These differences can carry a lot. The latter has an extra nonchalance or disregard: you don't care enough about the person to see if they are alive. Alternatively, the former could be more malicious (you know they are alive and choose not to help) or despairing (you know they are alive but that there is nothing you can do).

Ngram of "left to die" and "left for dead"

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    Well expressed, and I would especially note the 'nonchalance'. As words are also creatures of our culture, I think 'left for dead' has a certain humor/swagger that it frequently carries along with it that might stem from it's frequent use in the action/adventure western movies of the past... so much so that they used the term for a modern western themed horror movie(and cheap horror movies tend towards self-parody as they go along).((oh, and I just read the comment to an answer below by Sven Yargs noting that it has a long idiomic history and was used by Shakespeare in a comedy)
    – Tom22
    Jan 4, 2017 at 8:21
  • @Tom22 good call
    – Unrelated
    Jan 6, 2017 at 0:22
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Somebody "left for dead" might in fact be dead already, while somebody "left to die" is assumed to still be alive.

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  1. The victim was "left for dead" by the attacker who thought he had killed him.
  2. The badly injured victim was "left to die" after the attacker ran off.

I use the idiom "left for dead" in the context of implying not only the intent, but also the belief that the action was accomplished.

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  • Right: "left for dead" = "left as though dead", but "left to die" = "left to expire in due course, if events take their probable natural course".
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 4, 2017 at 2:36
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The two terms, "left for dead" and "left to die" normally refer to different viewpoints. "Left for dead" is an attribute or description of the victim. "left to die" normally refers to a specific choice or act attributable to someone other than the victim.

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