There is an English expression do for, which means to kill, to execute, to ruin, to defeat etc. and this expression seems to always be used in passive voice: e.g.) We are done for.

I understand this is like an idiom, but why is the preposition for used? Most prepositions have so many meanings to them, and I would like to know what for in this case means.


In the definitions of the above links, which for do you all think the for in done for is the closest to?

edit 2: I don't think the for is dangling, but I just want to know why for is used. Like, for normally means purpose, cause, or to be given, etc. But the for in question means quite opposite.

  • 4
    Just guessing, but it could be a shortened form of the phrase "for good." Thus, it would read, "We are done for good." Meaning, there's no coming back from it, and it's over. I don't think the verb phrase "do for" is a thing, though, as I've not heard or read, "He will do for him" with the meaning "to kill" – Carly Nov 5 at 16:58
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  • @KateBunting Who/what are you replying to? (Your link doesn't have the word "good".) – Keep these mind Nov 5 at 17:16
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    @Keepthesemind I was replying to Carly, who did not think 'do for' was 'a thing'. – Kate Bunting Nov 5 at 17:34
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    Yes, except the word order is different, usually: "I did you in." – DLosc Nov 5 at 20:26

10 Answers 10

up vote 69 down vote accepted

"For" at this point doesn't seem to have any meaning here, although it does add a little emphasis.

Specifically, it looks to me like "done for" could be actually a variation of the even older, now-obsolete verb "fordo".

The earliest example in the OED for "done for" is from a1500:

By thre skyllis may hit come to Why hit [sc. a stillborn child] is don for [Lansd. fordone] alsoo.
Sidrak & Bokkus (Laud)

"[Lansd. fordone]" means that in another manuscript they used "fordone" instead of "don[e] for". (Unfortunately I haven't been able to access either version.)

If you look at this free definition for "fordo" (for Middle English, but still applicable), you'll see it is essentially a synonym for "done for". "Fordo" is ancient (first attested in English in the year c900) and apparently derives from "Proto-Germanic *fardōną, *fradōną (“to ruin, destroy”)".

According to the OED, the "for" prefix in "fordo" means:

Implying destructive, painful, or prejudicial effect, as in fordeem, fordo

It's worth mentioning that the now-obsolete word "fordeem" is a synonym because it means "to ruin or destroy", although it also means "to condemn". There are other obsolete words that also have this "for" meaning destruction prefix but I can't think of any current ones. Of course there are plenty of current verbs with other senses of the same "for" prefix: forgive, forget, forbid, etc.

  • 19
    If correct (and I see no reason to doubt this, given the existence of the Dutch and German cognates), this presumably means that the "for" in "fordo" / "do for" is etymologically the anglicized form of the Proto-Germanic prefix *fra-, meaning "off" or "away". So "do for" literally means "do away". Nice. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 6 at 0:33
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    For those seeking an example from contemporary speech, the obvious example, then, is do away with. – Ed999 Nov 6 at 1:55
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    Anther examples of the "for" prefix is "forgo" (not to be confused with "forego"). – Acccumulation Nov 6 at 18:58
  • Unlike @IlmariKaronen I would interpret the "for" component as "fore", as in English "before" and "afore". So in modern terms, the speaker is so certain that the sentence object is "done" that it might as well have already happened "before" now. – Haydentech Nov 7 at 22:42
  • @Acccumulation not to be confused with Fargo :) – Pierre Arlaud Nov 9 at 10:04

tl;dr - It's not the word you think it is

Short answer: the "for" isn't a preposition, it's part of the verb "to do for", it doesn't have any meaning on its own, and the reason why that word and not another are lost in the mists of time - if there ever was a reason.

Phrasal verbs

"To do for" is an example of what's known as a phrasal verb in English. The verb is to do for, and it's transitive (i.e., it takes a subject, so you have to say "to do for (object)"). This can look confusing if you try to analyse it as the construction "to do (X) for (Y)", but in that case the verb is simply "do", and "for" is acting in its normal role as preposition.

The closest synonym for "to do for" is to doom, although many of the common uses can also carry the meaning of "to kill". "To do for" is quite informal, though - you won't see this in a coroner's report, but you will often hear people on the street using it (e.g. "It was the drink that did for him in the end", or "He did for my shin with that last tackle!").

As you note, "We are done for" is simply the passive-voice version of the active sentence "(someone) has done for us", meaning that someone has doomed us to a fate, although that fate does not have to be death. It's almost a stock-phrase, and it's slightly comedic: this phrase is often uttered by villains in British comedy writing - there it is best translated as "all is lost, and we will be caught and imprisoned".

"Do for" is used in its active sense, but very rarely in American English. I have heard British speakers saying things like "I did for my leg last night" meaning that they've injured themselves, but it's very much informal, and it may be regional (North of England rather than South).

The bits don't mean anything on their own

Some advice: do not try to look for some kind of deeper meaning behind the two parts of this kind of verb. Some make sense ("take in", "drop off", "run out"), but others don't really ("do in", "let on", "give up", "turn up"). Just accept that in English, there are some verbs that are made up of a "verby" word and a "prepositiony" word that act together to create a completely new, and usually idiomatic, meaning.

( This isn't just English, by the way. German has many such idiomatic phrasal verbs such as umbringen. That one looks like it should mean "bring around", from "um" and "bringen", but it actually means "to kill" - however, the sentence "ich bringe die Kinder um 08:00" doesn't mean you're planning a murder!)

Here are some other common phrasal verbs of the same type as "do for":

  • I give in : I admit defeat
  • She gave out about... : (first meaning) She complained about...
  • The bearing gave out : (second meaning) The bearing failed
  • I give up : I quit
  • I did in my knee : (informal) I damaged my knee
  • I did up the room : I decorated the room
  • She turned up today : she appeared today
  • She turned down the invitation : she declined the invitation
  • She had a grey dress on : She wore a grey dress

My personal experience (I speak British English, but work extensively with Americans) would suggest that there are more of these verbs in regular use in British English than American, but they're a common feature of English, and they're not something you can avoid.

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    Welcome to our site, and congratulations on an answer that meets all our expectations in terms of being authoritative, detailed, and explaining why it is correct. +1 is not enough ;-) – Chappo Nov 7 at 11:39

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang done for is the adjectival form of the phrasal verb do (a bad turn) for meaning to injure, kill. The preposition for would derive from the verbal form.

Done for adj.

(do for v./ext. of done adj.)

1821: without a chance, hopeless, defeated, lost, abandoned, ‘finished’.

  • 1843 [UK] ‘Bill Truck’ Man o’ War’s Man - 112: He’s done for now,

Do for verb:

[Do v.1 (1)/abbr. SE phr. do a bad turn for

to beat up, to injure, to murder.

  • 1751 [UK] Fielding Amelia II 70: He said something, too, about my master [...] he said he would do for him, I am sure he said that; and other wicked, bad words, too.
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    // , Why the dangling "for", though? This answer still is not direct enough to the question's intent. – Nathan Basanese Nov 6 at 1:21
  • @NathanBasanese - it is from a previous expression as explained, where for was used to indicate for whom the “bad turn” was. – user240918 Nov 6 at 7:04
  • @NathanBasanese In the active voice (as in the Fielding quote) there must be something after "do", since "he would do him" seems a grammatical error compared with the correct "he would do the homework". "Fordo" may have evolved into "do for" in the a similar pattern to "without" and the Scottish "outwith" (which is often used by Scots when speaking nominally British English.) – alephzero Nov 6 at 14:16
  • @alephzero "He would do him" is grammatically fine. The OED gives the following, among many definitions of do: "19. transitive. slang. To have sexual intercourse with. Also intransitive." – David Richerby Nov 7 at 16:45

The meaning of "done for" here cannot be found by combining meanings of "done" and "for" somehow.

done for
In a situation so bad that it is impossible to get out.
‘if the guard sees us, we're done for’

Oxford Dictionaries

  • 2
    Of course the meaning can be found by combining them! As a Germanic-origin preposition, meaning 'before', for combines with done to mean we are doomed (future tense), distinguishing done for from done in meaning dead (past tense). The use of 'before' gives the phrase (done for) a meaning in the future: the death is yet to come, we are before it. The use of in gives the other phrase (done in) its past tense: the death has occured. But Jessica is not asking what the term means, she is asking which dictionary definition, of 12 possibilities, covers it. However none of them do. – Ed999 Nov 6 at 4:43
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    @Ed999 I think the point is that you can't combine any individual meanings of done and for to arrive at the meaning of done for, you need to asses the meaning of the combined phrase as a whole. – Nuclear Wang Nov 6 at 13:38
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    Once we understand "done for", we can try "done in" and "done up". – GEdgar Nov 6 at 14:05
  • @GEdgar - and explain why "done down" is not the opposite of "done up" :) – alephzero Nov 6 at 14:17
  • @Ed999 "For" and "fore" are differnt words. – Acccumulation Nov 6 at 18:59

The for in to do for is acting as part of a phrasal verb, not a separate preposition.

English has the concept of phrasal verbs, which is taking a verb and combining it with an adverb or a preposition to create a new verb. This new verb loses the meanings of its individual parts and takes on a brand new meaning of its own.

A simple example is the verb to pick up. Compare the following sentences.

  1. Did you pick this ball?
  2. Did you pick up this ball?

The first sentence has a clearly different meaning from the second.

Your example works the same way. The verb to do is clearly different from the verb to do for. The second sentence may sound weird because of the archaic nature of that form, but it's basically the same as above.

  1. Did you do her?
  2. Did you do for her?

Again, the first sentence has a clearly different meaning from the second.

To sum up, the for in your example does not have a separate and distinct meaning. Instead, it changes the the verb to do to a different verb to do for that as a whole has its own meaning.

A more thorough explanation and several other examples of phrasal verbs, may be found here:

  • Welcome to ELU. This post shows promise as a good answer, but how do I know that you haven't made up "satellite verb" or that the expression exists but you've used it incorrectly? The solution is to cite an authoritative reference (preferably with a hyperlink). If you edit your post to provide this detail, I'll happily upvote you. For further guidance, see How to Answer. Make sure you also take the Tour :-) – Chappo Nov 7 at 4:53
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    It's a nice idea, but it looks like you've actually illustrated that "to do for" and "to pick up" behave very differently. The third example for "to do for", "Did you do her for?", is ungrammatical, in contrast to "Did you pick this ball up?" which is fine. (The second example, "Did you do for her?", is an unlikely thing to say, but perfectly grammatical.) – Alex Selby Nov 7 at 12:44

In colloquial usage, "to do for someone" can mean "to perform a service for" them, especially as an actual servant.

If the service was done in the past, you could say "Someone is one who has been done for," which can be shortened to "Someone is done for."

If the service hasn't been performed yet but is considered inevitable, the person is "as good as done for or simply done for.

In your question, "to do for someone" is ironic. The "service" to be performed is to kill them or thwart their intentions and it's definitely (in the speaker's opinion) going to happen. "He doesn't know it yet, but he's a walking dead man."

In any case, "someone" is the implied object of the preposition "for." No mystery there.

The idiomatic expressions "done for" means finished in the sense of defeated or killed and the precise meaning depends on the context. Idiomatic expressions in English cannot be interpreted or explained grammatically. The preposition "for" usually takes an object but in this case the expression is a synonym. I have never heard it used in another context such for example in the sentence "Bill did for him" or "Team A did for team B". "Done for" is a colloquialism.

Some food for thought of where this might come from

Done is the past form of do

Middle English do, first person singular of Old English don "make, act, perform, cause; to put, to place," from West Germanic *don (cf. Old Saxon duan , Old Frisian dua , Dutch doen , Old High German tuon , German tun ), from PIE root *dhe- "to put, place, do, make" (see factitious).


While for as a prefix has the meaning

a prefix meaning “away,” “off,” “to the uttermost,” “extremely,” “wrongly,” or imparting a negative or privative force, occurring in verbs and nouns formed from verbs of Old or Middle English origin, many of which are now obsolete or archaic:


So from this, the rough translation of "done for" to "have been made away" may be related or have come from it's old-english/germanic roots.

To "do" is to make death certain.

So to "do for" somebody, is to make death certain, for them.

So it's the meaning "pertaining to, or affecting".

The O.E.D. gives 12 definitions of the word 'for' in the link you posted (the American dictionary page linked to gives many more, but I lost the will to live after the first three dozen, so let's just stick to the O.E.D. for now).

The answer is easy: none of the 12 definitions listed is appropriate for the word 'for' in the context you've cited ('done for').

The O.E.D. is mostly only listing definitions of the word that fulfill some kind of counting function ('for 300 yards', 'for 12 years', 'for £1.20', 'for the 3rd time', '2 bottles for your 1') or some form of possession (it lists objects, persons and feelings belonging to someone: 'you', 'Napoleon', 'everyone', 'the department', 'the Open University', 'her family').

Significantly, it gives a dozen definitions - all of which have some merit as independent, separate meanings of the word, in various contexts.

The significance, to my mind, is that there are so many definitions: perhaps more than for any other word in the dictionary. And that, even so, the list given does not cover the usage you are citing (in 'done for').

This suggests, to me, that the word 'for', by reason of its extreme antiquity, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon roots of the English language (reference has been made to it being used in c.900 AD), only has a meaning in context. Or perhaps one should say, it has so many meanings - due to its antiquity - because it has acquired its meaning from its context (unlike most words, which can generally be understood apart from any context).

Short words of Anglo-Saxon origin (for, of, at) tend to be inordinately flexible in meaning and usage. It suggests that these are words which the language built up around. They have no invariant meaning, and only acquire meaning from the context. There is, accordingly, more truth than you suspected in your remark that 'most prepositions have so many meanings'.

Most words have multiple meanings, and those which have been around the longest have acquired the most. No word ever came 'pre-defined', all words originally acquired their meaning from their context. But there are few words you could have chosen which would have made that point more clearly than this one.

In the context you've specified, the word 'for' can only mean doomed. It can't possibly mean anything else. Yet the O.E.D. gives it 12 different meanings, in 12 different contexts, none of them remotely similar to this. The implication is that one could go on, indefinitely, citing examples of this word in different contexts. The O.E.D. doesn't attempt that. Dictionaries have limitations. Languages don't.

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    The dictionary you're talking about is probably "Oxford Dictionaries", not the OED, which is a completely different dictionary with a completely different purpose (history). – Laurel Nov 6 at 3:58
  • I mean the link Jessica posted on her question, but checking in my own copy of the Concise O.E.D. it gives 11 definitions under 'preposition' and 2 under 'conjunction'. And under 'origin' it specifies (probably) a reduction of a Germanic preposition meaning ‘before’ (in place or time). – Ed999 Nov 6 at 4:26
  • So, can this answer be summarized as: the question posed by the OP is unanswerable? – jsw29 Nov 6 at 17:08
  • @jsw29 : No, the correct answer to the o/p's question (and in fact the answer I have given) is that the phrase in question is not defined in the O.E.D., nor in the online dictionary which Laurel refers to. – Ed999 Nov 12 at 3:18
  • Is the meaning of the term undefinable? I think not. The clearest meaning of done for (the future tense of done in), really simply meaning - in both cases - dead, is (in its literal meaning) do (done) away with, from do (which is clear enough) + away (one of the original meanings of 'for' in Old English). – Ed999 Nov 12 at 3:27

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