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Re: "in fear for his future and his life" (the actual quote, emphasis mine)

With a fair amount of certainty, before today, I would've stated that "in fear for his future" is not idiomatic (in AmE) and that in fear for one's life is an idiom, with some variation, but you can't add another noun phrase to it, not in that way.

But in deference to the author (multilingual American, senior writer/editor, magna cum laude, etc.), I'm not so sure now. Maybe it was a transcription error. I don't know, but it's an odd combination (future and life). I thought I could find plenty of better ones online.

But all I found (including in) were these common, slight variations:

  1. in fear for one's life (US); in fear of one's life

afraid of being killed
She claimed that she shot the burglar because she was in fear for her life. [M-W]

  1. in fear for one's/someone's life

feeling that one/someone is in danger of dying or being killed [M-W]

In fear for the boy's life, his dog dragged him out of the shallow water by his life jacket.

  1. in fear for one's/someone's safety

In fear for her safety, the victim complied with the suspects’ demands and directed them to valuables. [LA Times]

Stalking laws criminalize a pattern of conduct in which an offender follows, harasses, or threatens another person, putting them in fear for their safety. [FindLaw]

  1. go in fear of (one's) life

To constantly fear that one may be in serious danger of being killed.
Ever since I received that threatening phone call, I've gone in fear of my life. [TFD]

This 4th one is unfamiliar to me. I'd probably say 'feared for my life' instead.

That's all I have, after all those searches. I thought I would find a dozen variations, but I didn't. I still can't think of another NP that I would add to it. Maybe you could though. The title and the question are one and the same:

Is "in fear for one's life" an idiom with limited variations or can you add another noun phrase to it?


Somewhat related questions found:

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    This is interesting; the corpora bear out the theory in fear for... is followed almost exclusively by life or safety Apr 17, 2023 at 2:46
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    Googling "in fear for his future" gives numerous results. I admit that I'd go with "in fear for his future and even his life" here, as one is obviously a subset. Apr 17, 2023 at 10:36
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    I think as a verb "to fear for X" is pretty common, but "in fear for" sounds clunky to me compared to "in fear of" or "fearing for" or other variations.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:40
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    The title is reasonable; I'd probably have used: 'Idioms allow limited variations. Can another noun phrase be acceptably coordinated with "one's life" in "in fear for one's life"?' Apr 17, 2023 at 11:07

5 Answers 5

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While activists are working to oppose the sharia court's death sentence, many are in fear for the future. (Irish Times)

The man's work began to suffer and he was soon in fear for his job. (The Telegraph)

Still trying to fathom the loss of Kante, the thought of losing the second of their side's' big three' will be a hammer blow to the Foxes' faithful and leave them in fear for the club's fortunes, both domestically and in their first adventure in Europe next season. (Pundit Arena)

The question of whether you can or can't put something else in place of 'life' is quite clear - you can, and will be understood. However, should you? is it common practice?

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, in fear for (someone's) life far outweighs any other usage: 121 life, 6 safety, 1 security and a few other one-offs mostly from blogs or spoken sources.

In the News on the Web Corpus, we would expect more variation due to its order of magnitude greater word count, and more recent materials, however the data aren't much different: ~2000 life, 11 future, 9 health, 4 job, 4 welfare.

Conclusion: The idiom is remarkably stable and rarely changed. Even when altered, the word substituted for life is often a synonym.

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  • @HippoSawrUs Quite right, I meant 'life' not 'fear'. Corrected now. Thanks for pointing that out!
    – DW256
    Apr 17, 2023 at 6:15
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Using the wildcard (in fear of *) in Google's Ngram, I took the following screenshot:

NGram results of “in fear of *”

From Google books, I found the following phrases. Without fear of being contradicted, by far the most common noun phrase was “in fear of his/her life”

in fear of the in fear of being in fear of what in fear of his / her
enemy caught might come or her safety
future seen might happen life
government separated might go wrong own shadow
people then and there someone else brother, father, mother etc.
Lord found out X might do wife / husband
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  • "In fear of her life" means "fearing to loose one's life", but "in fear of her brother" does not mean "fearing to loose her brother". There is a mingling of idiomatic meanings (rare, "life", "safety") and meanings true to their literal reading. Is the purpose of that research to show that idiomaticity is limited to "life" and "safety"?
    – LPH
    Apr 17, 2023 at 15:17
  • @LPH The sentences do not end there: …in fear of her/his brother's actions/violence/reaction etc. = scared of his/her violence, temper etc. E.g Although Paul had lived in fear of his father, he vividly recalled feeling unprotected when his father was away
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 17, 2023 at 15:44
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The fact that on the one hand "to fear for something" is idiomatic (multi-word verb form) and that on the other "for your life" (variant: "for dear life") is an idiom as well as a plain combination, is possibly what causes the uneasiness.

(OALD) fear for phrasal verb
fear for somebody/something
​to be worried about somebody/something
• We fear for his safety.
• They feared for their lives.
• He feared for his mother, left alone on the farm.

(OALD) for dear life | for your life (SOED: for one's life [That is, you can use "my", "his", "their" etc. and the meaning is the same])
​as hard or as fast as possible
• She was holding on to the rope for dear life. • Run for your life!

This construction is not considered to be an idiom when the noun "fear" is used instead of the verb, as in fact there correspond the nominal expression "fear for something", yet the nominal meaning corresponds to the verbal meaning of the multi-word verb.

(OALD) fear [countable] a feeling of concern about somebody's safety or about something bad that might happen
• The doctor's report confirmed our worst fears.
• Police tried hard to allay the fears of local residents.>>
fear for somebody/something her fears for her son’s safety

It follows that if the verb were used in "fear for one's life" the interpretation of "for one's life" as "as hard as possible" would be excluded, but since in "in fear for his future and his life" this is not the verb and that "life" comes after "future", there is no problem, at least from a strict "theoretical" point of view; for instance one might not be familiar enough with all forms and thus be confused.

Also, since this expression is not an idiom, at least as far as the complement goes (somebody/something), any noun that makes sense can be added.

The combination might not be so odd. Let's take the case of a worker on skyscrapers in the period when this type of construction saw the day, one who had a hard time to overcome his fear of heights but a numerous family; it is quite conceivable that his mind could have been torn by both those fears; there are more complicated situations still.

"In fear of one's life" is an idiom though. It means "feeling frightened that you might be killed" (OALD). So, "in fear for one's life" and "in fear of one's life" are synonymous; however, "in fear for her health/family/children/property/…" is not "synonymous to "in fear of her health/family/children/property/…" (respectively), which means nothing.

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    @HippoSawrUs I see a problem, right away: whereas OALD does not consider "fear for sb/sth)" as an idiom, Merriam-Webster does, and this latter point of view seems to correspond to the fact that both consider the verbal expression "to fear for" to be a phrasal verb, that is, in some other terminology, a multi-word verb; as such words are reckoned with as being all idioms, the latter point of view would appear justified. However I can't resolve this difficulty for myself.
    – LPH
    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:09
  • @HippoSawrUs You mean you don't understaand that phrasal verb are idioms? That is simple: it is so because you can't tell the meaning from the combination. For instance, in "go for a drink/walk/etc." the idea is the person is really going somewhere and that whatever is mentioned after is an action that takes place; the preposition "for" can be taken as having one of its usual meanings; however, in "go for sb" (when you mean "being mean") this is not true, the final meaning is that of attacking (even if that action involves usually motion towards "sb" and even if it is probably (1/2)
    – LPH
    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:53
  • @HippoSawrUs the reason for this phrasal verb being a combination of "go" and "for"); also you can't find a usual meaning for the preposition "for", nor can you say that the person went to fetch sb; so it is an idiom. (2/2)
    – LPH
    Apr 17, 2023 at 10:55
  • I had no idea that phrasal verbs were considered idioms. I understand the similarity, the words together mean something else, not what they mean individually, but no, never heard that before. Apr 17, 2023 at 12:13
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    I suppose context licenses 'This construction is not called idiomatic' here, but because the default sense of 'idiomatic' is 'commonly accepted and used' (at least arguably: Collins, Dictionary.com, Wiktionary, OLD, Macmillan, AHD), 'is not considered to be an idiom' is more helpful. Apr 17, 2023 at 15:52
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"Idiomatic" versus "idiom" is a case where an adjective and noun form of a word mean very different things. "Idiomatic" basically means "sound normal to a native speaker", while "idiom" is something that is not compositional. "In fear for one's life" is a collocation, and this usage is more idiomatic than other uses of "fear for", but "fear for" is productive, and "fear for one's life" is compositional of "fear", "for", and "life". To "fear for" something is to be concerned about it being lost, damaged, and/or destroyed.

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  • Thanks for the terms and links. Apr 23, 2023 at 5:18
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You can, of course, make use of it being an idiom (or strong collocation), and change it for effect, more or less as in the question you linked.

A couple of examples (not particularly lucid):

Watch TikTok videos in fear for one's sanity.

Talk to this chatterbox/blabbermouth/motormouth while in fear for one's line of thought.

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