Reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, I just found the expression “He scowled ahead of him” and it struck me as something I'd never heard or read before. The context is that this guy is sitting on a dinner table with a lot of other people and brooding.

But in that one sentence lay compact, like gunpowder, that his grandfather was a fisherman; his father a chemist; that he had worked his way up entirely himself; that he was proud of it; that he was Charles Tansley—a fact that nobody there seemed to realize; but one of these days every single person would know it. He scowled ahead of him. He could almost pity these mild cultivated people, who would be blown sky high, like bales of wool and barrels of apples, one of these days by the gunpowder that was in him.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I've really never encountered the expression before, and I can't find any reference to it being an idiom. Is “scowl ahead [of one]” a common English expression, or is it quirky or literary?

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    I wonder whether it means that he scowled without focussing his eyes on anything in particular; that is, he didn't scowl at anyone. Commented May 2, 2022 at 8:17

2 Answers 2


He scowled ahead of him.

He scowled ahead of himself

He scowled forwards

He was scowling and he was staring forwards, i.e. he was staring ahead blankly into the middle distance with a scowl on his face.

The original quote indicates that he was entirely wrapped up in his own thoughts and was unconscious of the people about him.

  • Since Anton gives the temporal sense, envisioning the future quite forcefully, I can't see how this can be considered other than opinion-based. Answers without any support come across as, and may be, opinion. Commented May 2, 2022 at 16:37
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    @EdwinAshworth This (your comments) looks like sophistry. The two answers may be seen positively as complementary rather than negatively as opposing opinions.
    – Anton
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 6:55
  • @Anton No, that comment can be seen as sophistry. 'It may be A' / 'Or it may equally be B' answers display the lack of reasonable endorsement considered necessary for a valid answer on ELU (or indeed any SE site). The requirement for non-speculative answers is made very clear. And speculative interpretation of song lyrics, poetry has long been considered too open to opinion. // Not my downvote; I'd be even-handed. Commented May 3, 2022 at 9:23
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you. I appreciate your openness and (as I often do) deplore those others who feel free to downvote answers without giving any informative reason to the questioner. Downvoting is a reasonable mechanism but how do they think mute downvoting helps anyone?
    – Anton
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 9:34
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    @EdwinAshworth Kant would be proud of you and, by coincidence your decision, supports your own earlier comment. ;)
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 4, 2022 at 19:26


Ahead: in or into the future

Using this meaning, it is commonplace to speak of thinking ahead, seeing ahead, going ahead, gazing ahead, all where the action takes place in the present but where the focus of the action is on the future.

Similarly, Woolf describes a scowl in the present that focuses on a future time when the character’s true nature will be revealed.

Your mention of brooding seems appropriate. It is consistent with the additional idea that the scowl is used metaphorically to represent his state of mind rather than his actual facial expression. This is similar to the metaphorical use of gaze in gaze into the future, where there is no actual gazing by the eyes.

  • Since Greybeard gives the directional sense dogmatically, I can't see how this can be considered other than opinion-based. Answers without convincing support come across as, and may be, opinion. Commented May 2, 2022 at 16:36

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