As for me, "They left him for dead" seems to mean they thought he was dead and so they left.

"They left him for death" seems to mean either "they left him because they were afraid of being killed" or "they left him for the purpose of death"

Am I right? Is there anyone who can clarify these two sentences?


4 Answers 4


"They left him for dead" is idiomatic and quite common in English literature. It does not mean that the person left was dead, but that he was left in a state in which death seemed likely, or they wrongly assumed he was dead. It is as if he was as good as dead.

A comparable sentence to "they left him for dead" might be "they took him for a fool", which means that "they" wrongly assumed he was a fool.

"They left him for death" is not something I have ever heard. Sometimes in literature "death" is personified, either as something like the mythical "grim reaper" or just as a metaphysical conceit. I suppose that if it was your intention to suggest that somebody had been left for a personified "death" to come for then you could use this, but it is not idiomatic and so my short answer would have to be that this is not correct. "Dead" is an adjective, whereas "death" is a noun (the state of being dead) so you just as you would not say "he is death" to mean they are dead, neither could you say that someone was assumed to be "death".

Lastly, if there is no assumption that the person is already dead and has been left "dying" (but it is assumed that he will die), the idiomatic phrase would be "they left him to die".

  • 7
    The correct way of saying what I would assume you meant by "they left him for death" would be "they left him to die".
    – CompuChip
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:25
  • 1
    @Kat Metaphysical conceit is the correct term.
    – Théophile
    Feb 15, 2019 at 18:37
  • 1
    I agree that mostly it just seems incorrect. Personified death is usually capitalized too, as in, "I turned around and saw Death. He was about 8 feet tall and looked like he could use a sandwich." As CompuChip says, we could reason out that they probably meant "They left him to die" but "they left him for death" is, at the very least, an unusual way to phrase it.
    – JamieB
    Feb 15, 2019 at 19:24
  • I agree but with regards to the second (...for death); I feel that a good scenario for this would be: That the subject of the statement is well but some impending disaster is about to befall and while others have issued a warning they will remain and death will take them. Still personification but a possible distinction being leaving someone to die of injuries verses leaving someone to their own folly.
    – Quaternion
    Feb 15, 2019 at 22:31
  • The opposite interpretation of "left him for death" is possible: one member of a group of suicide bombers chickened out of the mission, but the others continued their jouney to the target location.
    – alephzero
    Feb 16, 2019 at 11:26

"They left him for dead" means that they assumed that he was dead and left him "They left him for death" means that they left him to let him die. In both cases they do not offer any help and it seems intentional in the first case and unintentional in the second. That's how I take it.


As for me, "They left him for dead" seems to mean they thought he was dead and so they left.

That's not correct. It means that he was alive, but they expected him to die if they left; and they decided to leave anyway, instead of saving his life.

"They left him for dead" means the same thing as "They left him to die".

Here are some dictionary definitions:

  • To leave (a person or animal) that one knows will probably die instead of trying to help. (From Merriam-Webster.)
  • To abandon a person or other living creature that is injured or otherwise incapacitated, assuming that the death of the one abandoned will soon follow. (From Wiktionary.)

"They left him for death" seems to mean either "they left him because they were afraid of being killed" or "they left him for the purpose of death".

I've never heard a native speaker say "they left him for death", and I can't think of a situation in which a native speaker would say that. I did a web search for the phrase; all of them were mistakes, where the author mistakenly wrote "death" instead of "dead".


"to leave for dead"

to abandon someone or something believing that they are dead, even though they may still be alive

Two friends are talking ...

Friend 1: Why are you so happy? Did you win the lottery?

Friend 2: Something like that. I had bought some stock in a company many years ago and then the company got into some serious trouble and the share price plummeted to almost nothing. I left it for dead and never really thought about it again until yesterday when I received a letter in the mail informing me that the company had recovered and that my stock was now worth more than ten times what I paid for it.

Friend 1: Wow. That's great news.


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