Good evening everyone,

I was listening to Tears for Fears' song Everybody wants to rule the world, and I came across the line "when the walls come tumbling down". I looked the expression up in the dictionaries and I found out that 'to tumble down' means 'to fall suddenly and rapidly'. The thing is that some dictionaries provide examples where this phrasal verb is in the gerund form and is preceded by the verbs 'to go' or 'to come':

a) The scaffolding came tumbling down.

b) The statue came tumbling down during the riots.

c) If the foundations are flawed the house will come tumbling down.

d) He tripped on the wire running across the hallway and went tumbling down the stairs.

My question is: is there any difference between 'to tumble down' and 'to come/go tumbling down'? Could I say, for instance, "The scaffolding tumbled down"?

Thanks for your help!


You certainly can say "the scaffolding tumbled down", in fact that is the 'normal' way of saying it. If we say "the walls tumbled down" this is a simple statement of fact.

We can also say "The train rolled along the track" and that is a simple statement of fact.

If however we say "The walls came tumbling down" (as is used in the traditional American song Joshua and the battle of Jericho there is more emotion implied in the reporting. There is also, often, a greater feeling of intention on someone's part that the event should occur or that the event has greater significance.

Similarly if we say "The train went rolling along the track" there is a greater feeling of significance to the event. It might be that the speaker is describing the exceitement of setting off on holiday or the feeling of dread that the train was going to crash into a stationary vehicle. (The significance can be either positive or negative depending on the context)

Indeed if we look at the Battle of Jericho as an event (the Book of joshua in the Bible treats it as historical fact) the significance of the walls falling would have been immensely positive for the Israelites, particularly as they saw it as God performing a miracle for their benefit, but it would have been disasterous for the people of Jericho as the invading Israelites would either disposess them, enslave them or kill them. Possibly those fates would have all been experienced by different inhabitants of the city. This would not stop English speakers writing from both perspectives using "The walls of Jericho came tumbling down" in narrations from both perspectives.

In summary a simple, factual report will use "the walls tumbled down" or "The train rolled along the track" but a more emotionally charged piece may use "The walls came tumbling down" or "The train went rolling along the track".

By the way the 'ing' forms of the verbs in these cases are not gerunds as they are not functioning as nouns. They are are the present participles of the verbs. You can tell this because they are referring to actions (the walls falling or the train rolling). To be gerunds they would have to function as nouns, for example we could refer to "The tumbling down of the walls of Jericho" or "The rolling of the train along the track"


Grammatically, this is no different from any other participle clause modifying a verb:

He came carrying some plates.

They ran away screaming.

He went racing after the bus.

Where the verb does not add anything semantically to the participle, there is no difference in meaning to just use the finite form instead of the participle:

He raced after the bus.

In the case of came tumbling down, the verb came is almost bleached of meaning anyway, so you could certainly replace it with tumbled down.

But, came tumbling down is a familiar phrase - almost an idiom - from the Spiritual "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho"; and for that reason it has a rhetorical resonance, which is lacking if you say tumbled down. The full phrase suggests a more complete or more forceful collapse than tumbled down - not I think because of the meaning of the words or the grammatical form, but just because of the historical resonance.

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