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I'm trying to describe someone's cloak touching the ground behind them as they walk. I was thinking: "His cloak was long enough to trail the ground behind him."

Is "trail the ground" appropriate here? Is there a different way to phrase this sentence?

Update: The word trail only works using a preposition, e.g. "trail along the ground," "trail on the ground."

You may find alternatives to the word trail in the first answer below.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jan 20 at 23:43

11 Answers 11

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The example you provided is perfectly correct. Both the Oxford English dictionary1 and Merriam-Webster2 agree that trail (verb) implies something is touching the ground, especially when used transitively like you have. Even in the non-transitive sense, it still means the same thing. I.e. "His cloak was long enough to trail behind him" or rather "His cloak was so long it trailed behind him".

A few other ways to express the length of his cloak:

  • "His cloak was long enough to touch the ground behind him."

The most simple way to describe it, requires basic English vocabulary.

  • "His cloak was long enough to graze the ground behind him."

This implies the cloak is touching the floor while moving, adds a sense of animalistic behavior.

  • "His cloak was long enough to brush the ground behind him."

This implies the cloak is touching the floor with some force or resistance, possibly making a noise as well, adds a sense of power.

  • "His cloak was long enough to sweep the ground behind him."

This implies the cloak is touching the floor in a smooth, effortless way, adds a sense of elegance.

  • "His cloak was long enough to dust the ground behind him."

This implies the cloak is touching the floor but also picking up debris and/or other particles as it moves along, adds a sense of uncleanliness.

ref

  1. oxfordlearnersdictionaries
  2. merriam-webster
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  • Hello, and welcome to the EL&U. This site encourages its users to provide research in their answers. If you could include some links proving that your word choice is the right one, it would much improve your answer.
    – fev
    Jan 18 at 15:15
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    You provide a few other verbs with definitions. Where did you find these definitions? It would be good to put the links to those definitions in dictionaries between brackets at the end of each definition. Then your answer will be a very good one.
    – fev
    Jan 18 at 15:51
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    The OP's example is not correct. See @Marmitrob's answer.
    – TonyK
    Jan 19 at 11:29
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    "trail" is insufficent on its own. It needs to be, "The cloak trailed along/on the ground" Jan 19 at 12:31
  • It';s just dragging or brushing, etc. Pls don't answer questions which are so simple they should be on ELL.
    – Fattie
    Jan 19 at 23:37
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It is odd to say "his cloak trailed the ground", while "trail" can be a transitive verb, it means to track when used in this way. You might want to say "his cloak trailed along the ground". You could also say "his cloak swept the ground behind him". That has a somewhat more literary tone. Or "his cloak brushed the ground" if you wanted to indicate that the cloak was not constantly in contact with the ground, but made occasional contact as he walked.

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  • 10
    Or "trailed on the ground as he walked".
    – BoldBen
    Jan 18 at 8:43
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    "Along" is more idiomatic here. Jan 19 at 19:05
  • @AsteroidsWithWings Disagree, I would say "trailed along behind him" but "trailed on the ground" or "trailed along on the ground"...American east coast. Jan 20 at 16:02
  • @user3067860 Not everywhere is America :) If you don't live where I am, then you cannot disagree with what's idiomatic here. :) Jan 20 at 17:30
  • @AsteroidsWithWings I know, that's why I specified my general location--it may be more idiomatic where you are from, but it is the opposite where I am from. (I also note that the "on" comment has 10 up votes, so that suggests I may not be alone.) Jan 20 at 17:32
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drag:

3 : to move or cause to move along on the ground You're dragging your scarf. Your scarf is dragging

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drag

Remember to keep track of what the subject and object of a verb can be. "Trail" and "drag" both have the cloak as the direct object. The ground would be an indirect object: "The cloak dragged on the ground". There are verbs for which "the ground" can be a direct object, such as "scrape".

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You might use the word or allude to 'train' if you feel it is warranted, which is what a wedding garment that follows a bride in a similar way is called. https://www.brides.com/story/wedding-dress-train-etiquette

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  • "At her wedding, her Condé cousin Élisabeth Alexandrine de Bourbon had the honour of holding her train." +1
    – Gangnus
    Jan 20 at 9:13
  • And at your reference there are excellent examples of using the word correctly. "A train is an extra length of fabric that extends from the back of your wedding dress and trails behind you as you walk. " I think, that is the answer.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 20 at 9:17
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It’s normal for some styles of cloak to touch the ground. Here are some examples: https://www.yourdressmaker.com/capes-and-cloaks-2#/pageSize=12&orderBy=0

Most readers have a “reasonable” knowledge of clothing. They know that shorts are shorter than pants. They know that a cloak covers more than a cape. However, you can’t count on them knowing the exact length of a specific style.

This means that you can choose words that give your reader additional information.

If your intent is simply to describe the cloak, you can simply refer to it as floor length or full length: He wore a floor length cloak, perfectly fitted. It trailed lightly behind him as he walked.

Your choice of words for how the cloak touches the ground is related to how the cloak is supposed to touch the ground, and this depends on how the garment has been fitted to the wearer.

Generally speaking, a well-fitted garment is described in positive terms, e.g. they were fitted out identically in ceremonial garb, but the richer men with better tailors were instantly obvious. Their cloaks brushed delicately against the flagstones as they moved in dignity up the aisle. The poorer men clutched and dragged as best they could.

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    Somehow, I have doubts about the historical accuracy of many of the cloaks in that link. Having a cloak long enough to touch the ground is a really good way to get it dirty, and washing clothes by hand is a labor-intensive activity.
    – nick012000
    Jan 19 at 7:32
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    @nick012000 That was often precisely the point. Showing of your wealth. See my cloak? I can afford to get my expensive clothes dirty. I have servants to do the cleaning (or I just buy a new cloak).
    – Tonny
    Jan 20 at 10:20
  • @nick012000 Agree that link is not the best accuracy, but I will note that (ridiculously long) trains on clothing were actually a thing. They didn't really just throw them on the floor though (not even the rich people) except when they were in a clean/fancy area. For cloaks, you can always have a small child run along behind you holding your hems up: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Train_(clothing) For dresses, you can do that or there were more complicated options (including having a special layer on the bottom that's easily replaceable): yesterdaysthimble.com/tutorials/balayeuse Jan 20 at 18:05
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Use brushed if it occasionally touches and brushes for a longer cloak. Use dragged/dragging or catched if the touching significantly impedes movement.

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Cloaks probably shouldn't touch the ground.

Okay, I'm going to give a frame challenge here: in any historical (or pseudo-historical fantasy) setting, cloaks probably shouldn't be long enough to touch the ground. The ground is dirty, and keeping it clean of dust and dirt is difficult, requiring the active labor of servants, possibly on a daily basis. Remember, there were no vacuum cleaners back then, so to keep a room clean, they'll need to sweep and dust it all by hand.

Additionally, once such a cloak became dirty, cleaning it would require even more manual labor. Remember, washing machines didn't exist yet either, so cleaning clothes required very physically-intensive manual labor (wet cloth is heavy).

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  • I'm going to challenge your challenge! - In the typical derring-do story, "he" has rendered a guard unconscious and stolen their uniform cloak to fool the other guards. Because he (or she) is not so tall as the guard, the cloak drags the ground. It's dusk so let's hope no-one notices before our hero escapes the enemy camp! Jan 19 at 12:29
  • @chasly-supportsMonica In most pre-modern armies, there was no uniform. Soldiers were responsible for buying their own gear, though sometimes there were minimum expectations about what gear they would possess.
    – nick012000
    Jan 19 at 12:35
  • This is all wildly off topic on a question that should be closed anyway. But if you glance at actual medieval images of cloaks (hence, typically Burgundian) they do indeed drag along the ground ravenfoxcapes.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/4077862_orig.jpg
    – Fattie
    Jan 19 at 23:40
  • @nick012000 - "In most pre-modern armies" Most is not all. The Knights Templar were quite uniforn at any given time. cdn.history.com/sites/2/2015/05/… Jan 20 at 0:16
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Sweep

The cloak was long enough to sweep the ground behind him

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I wonder nobody has suggested kiss yet.

to strike lightly; brush against

[American Heritage Dictionary]

His cloak was long enough to kiss the ground behind him.

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Verb scuff (or more likely scuffed) is the word I'd use. It means light brushing and has the advantage of being onomatopoeic.

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    Scuffed is more for solid objects like shoes.
    – arp
    Jan 19 at 2:22
  • No. Scuffed as an adjective implies physically scratched. Scuffed as a verb is the action of one thing against another. A cloak on the ground is an excellent example. That's why I started with 'Verb'.
    – Peter Fox
    Jan 19 at 20:00
  • 'Scratched' is similar, but much 'harder' and might be expected to leave an actual scratch as well as make some sort of scraping noise. A dragging sword might scratch while a cloak scuffs. A stiff yard brush might scratch on the ground while a soft brush makes a slight susurration. That's scuffing.
    – Peter Fox
    Jan 19 at 20:09
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His radiant form caused the ground to disappear beneath him as he walked, so that everyone who gazed upon him began to glimpse that he was emerging from another dimension, and so that his magical cloak seemed to flow gently as if in a breeze, even though his cloak was long enough to otherwise have touched the mysteriously disappearing earth.

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  • Very poetical but doesn't answer the question! (unless you are suggesting "touch" which was already mentioned in the answer by @Jonas Benz) Jan 19 at 12:28
  • I didn't upvote it because it didn't answer my question, but I love the answer none the less: Can't find the solution to a problem? Just get rid of your problem! Can't find a word to describe your cloak touching the earth? Just get rid of the ground!
    – Riescent
    Jan 19 at 21:45

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