I have a question about the phrase "go off". According to most dictionaries, "go off" could be used like this:

  1. The gun went off.
  2. A bomb went off.

, where both "gun" and "bomb" are devices. But, on the web, examples like the following are found:

  1. Gunfire went off.
  2. An explosion went off.

, where "gunfire" and "explosion" are actions. Dictionaries seem to only allow sentences 1 and 2, but not 3 and 4.

What do native speakers think? Are sentences 3 & 4 standard English?

  • 2
    My feeling is that it's understandable but not standard. If you compare gun went off/gunfire went off you'll see that the gunfire version is vanishingly rare: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – stangdon
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 11:19
  • Isn't it remarkable how so many attestations of "gunfire went off" (indluding a series of gunfire went off) occur in pulp fiction? google.com/…
    – TimR
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 13:42
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo, I ave see worse writing... but not very often.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 5:00
  • 3 and 4 are acceptable but clunky. 1 and 2 are better and sound more natural. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:43
  • In strict theory, you are wholly correct; “Gunfire…” and “An explosion” don’t “go off” but that’s not how most people think or speak. Please consider instead, “a fast speed…” when despite common usage, there cannot really be such a thing. A high speed” is logical. A fast speed actually means a “speedy speed”. Then, are we interested in linguistic rules, or everyday use of language? Commented May 10, 2018 at 20:01

4 Answers 4


We use the term 'go off' about a change of state: something that happens just once. At one moment the gun contains powder and a bullet: the next it contains only smoke. The same is true of bombs, fireworks, foodstuffs (albeit rather slower). For an alarm clock, it descibes the moment when the clock starts ringing. If a person goes off something, it means that they stop liking something... a state change from liking to not.

Because it is a state change, it works for a single shot from a rifle, pistol or shotgun, but the term does not fit comfortably with the continuous discharge of an automatic weapon.

Gunfire is a continuous activity and so, like the automatic weapon, it doesn't sit naturally with going off.... unless, like the alarm clock, you choose to regard it as the moment that the gunfire started. So, gunfire going off is understandable, and it is used, but it does not sound natural.

An explosion is already a state change: it sounds wrong to talk about a state change of a state change. An explosion going off does occur, but again it does not sound natural.


Both 3 & 4 are acceptable and understandable

Gunfire suddenly went off in the distance.
the sudden sound of gunfire was heard in the distance

An explosion went off and set the factory on fire.
an explosion set the factory on fire

  • More accurately, it's the bombs and guns that go off although gunfire and explosions are often said to do so. Commented May 15, 2017 at 9:35
  • 1
    Understandable I guess, but I don't know about "acceptable". The gunfire doesn't "go off", the gunfire is the act the gun of going off. It's like saying "the sound made a noise."
    – stangdon
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 11:20
  • I like "gunfire erupted"
    – malaprop
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 0:46

The gun… or A bomb went off are fine and it doesn’t matter that they’re devices. People can go off in much the same way. Gunfire… or An explosion went off are perfectly understandable but wholly unidiomatic, tautological and largely ungrammatical. Gunfire is not something independent: it’s the result of a gun going off. An explosion is not something independent: it’s the result of a bomb going off. By the way no; none of them are actions. Firing a gun is an action and it isn’t gunfire. Gunfire is a noun. A bomb exploding is an action and it isn’t an explosion. An explosion is a noun.

  • They're just careless, unless the speaker wants argue about it. In that case, they're wrong. Idiomatically The gun went off is correct and Gunfire went off wrong but that’s because strictly, The gun was fired which makes gunfire was fired tautological; it clearly repeats itself. Your explosion is very much less clear but still, broadly similar. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 17:26

Gunfire and explosions aren't actions, they're things. Therefore, all examples are correct

However, you can't strictly say

Exploding went off

The firing of a gun went off

Though some people may say this, it is very informal slang, so don't use it

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