I'm not a native speaker. Also, I play video games. :P When the video game Left 4 Dead came out I thought the phrase was just a cool but largely meaningless title that hinted at the game being about zombies.

I, since then, found out it was a real phrase, but I'm still unsure as to what it really means. For example, the phrase "They were left for dead", does it mean something like this...

  • "They were left to die [because there was no hope for them]", or maybe...
  • "It was assumed they were dead by then." (ie. highly unlikely that they were still alive), or...
  • "They were left there on purpose so they would die."

Also, another form of the phrase is "let die", which I first heard in Green Day's song "21 Guns":

When it's time to live and let die,
And you can't get another try,
Something inside this heart has died,
You're in ruins.

Here it sounds more like it has a similar meaning to "give up [on life?]".

Could someone explain this phrase and its various forms to me?

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    The lyrics on 21 Guns don't really have much to do with the expression left for dead. Live and let die is a sardonic twisting of the expression Live and let live, which basically means Live your own life as you choose, so long as you allow others that same freedom". Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 15:54

5 Answers 5


To understand what this simple phrase means first think of the literal meaning, that the person was abandoned because it was assumed that they were already dead, mortally wounded or that it was inevitable that they die.

But there is more to the phrase than that. In common usage, this phrase is often part of a narrative where a person was expected to die, yet against the odds they survived. Some examples from COCA:

Left for dead by a busy road, Susan managed to get a ride to a police station where she insisted she be brought to the Nairobi Women's Hospital.

Pueschel, just 11-years-old, was beaten, stabbed and left for dead, but he lived to testify against Reginald and Gerry Mahaffe.

... a young man in Los Angeles was robbed, shot, left for dead, but he lived because a bullet was stopped by a radio in his pocket.

The common theme in these stories is an act of cruelty towards an innocent person who survives either by a stroke of luck or a miracle. A proper reading of the title Left for Dead should include cruelty, abandonment but also a sense of hope.


Literally means to leave behind to die; to abandon someone as being dead. (The abandoned person may actually be alive.)

In general use, it means to abandon something because there is no hope for it.

  • 1
    I'm not sure that I've ever seen the phrase used in a metaphorical sense. In all cases I can think of, it's been used to literally refer to persons abandoned for dead. (I do have both editions of the videogame, by the way, which is quite good.)
    – The Raven
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 16:20
  • Here's an example from a National Geographic article: bitly.com/p9BM27 (should be highlighted) Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:09
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    I voted for this but I'd go further than may actually be. The person left for dead is usually alive, according to a quick survey of COCA hits for this phrase.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:17
  • @The Raven: So you don't consider left for dead in the context of videogames to be "metaphorical"? You really do get immersed in your gaming! Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:26
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    I always assumed that someone left for dead was still alive at the time of being left (the reason doesn't matter), but with little chance of surviving.
    – Gurzo
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 18:00

It means to me that they were left behind because everyone assumed they were dead or as good as dead.

  • 2
    I disagree. The person may not be assumed dead, but there may be little or no hope for them. There's a difference between "assumed dead" and "will likely die". Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Charles Goodwin: In principle you are right, but in practice one of the reasons for using the expression is that from the point of view of those leaving that difference is in fact irrelevant. Although obviously if you're saying it from the viewpoint of those left, it must mean you're still alive. Third parties will see things according to their moral position, not medical prognoses. It's not the exact words, it's the context/viewpoint which fixes the meaning. Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 16:10
  • I can't bring myself to agree with you. The phrase "assumed dead" removes the dilemma involved when leaving people behind who are still living that, if accommodated, impact the survival chances of the group. Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:13
  • @Fumble I don't understand your comment from the point of view of someone leaving as I think there is a world of difference between leaving behind someone who you think is already dead and leaving someone who is likely to die.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:20
  • @Charles Goodwin: I don't think left for dead is normally used in the context you outline (reluctantly, for the benefit of those who must push on unencumbered by the wounded). It's difficult to find a non-condematory expression for that one, obviously - probably just "left behind" is the best one can do. Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:20

Colloquially it also means to beat somebody in a race so comprehensively that they might as well have been dead

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    Probably a better way of putting this, in the context of a race, is that it means to get away so quickly at the start that the subject might as well not have participated in the race, as opposed to might as well be dead. Commented Sep 5, 2011 at 17:16

All three of OP's suggested interpretations of left for dead may be valid, according to context, although the third would more likely be phrased as left to die. In the real world I think it makes little difference which meaning one assumes.

@Martin Beckett correctly points up another, rather different, colloquial usage.

Per my comment against the question, Green Day's Live and let die (itself just an echo of the title of the Fleming book/Bond film) is unrelated.

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