1

Can we use "surround" when the person being surrounded is in a corner? I always thought "surrounded" implied that there are people on all sides, but I am not sure if that's the case, because there's no word we could use otherwise in the situation where the person is not completely surrounded.

For example:

John stood in the corner with his back against the wall and some men surrounded him.

3

Normally surrounded is exactly as you say, where something is all around someone else. As you will see in comments, some native speakers find the usage in your example perfectly natural.

We do also say

  • He was cornered by the guards
  • He was blocked in by the guards

In your example, perhaps

  • John had his back to the wall: the men had him cornered

Native speakers aren't agreed on whether it naturally suits your example, and though he is clearly surrounded, it might not be the men which surround him. Here's a sentence where he's surrounded, but not by the men:

  • John was in the corner with his back against the wall and his enemy in front, he was completely surrounded

OED gives

surround v a. To enclose, encompass, or beset on all sides; to stand, lie, or be situated around; also, to form the entourage of; often passive const. with or by = to have on all sides or all round. b. [figurative usage] c. Military. To enclose (a place, or a body of troops) on all sides so as to cut off communication or retreat; to invest.

One of the examples of the military usage is "1802 C. James New Mil. Dict. "A town is said to be surrounded when its principal outlets are blocked up."

Merriam-Webster gives

surround transitive verb
(1) : to enclose on all sides : envelop the crowd surrounded her
(2) : to enclose so as to cut off communication or retreat : invest entry 2
[other related meanings]

  • In this specific example, the man still is surrounded on all sides—on two sides by walls and on another two sides by guards. But in practical terms, he has been surrounded by guards in the only way he can be. (It's not as if the guards are going to break down the existing walls and then stand in their former locations.) If he is surrounded, it just means that he has been prevented from escaping. Which is true in this case. Also note sense 1 b of the word as defined by Merriam-Webster. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jul 15 at 0:46
  • @JasonBassford I am sure usage varies, but to me the obstacles surrounded him, not the men. OED gives "surround a. To enclose, encompass, or beset on all sides; to stand, lie, or be situated around; also, to form the entourage of; often passive const. with or by = to have on all sides or all round." But it does give as 1802 military use to block off all principal exits, seems to be what you're suggesting. – jonathanjo Jul 15 at 9:09
  • I already provided a link to a sense of surrounded that does not necessitate all sides. You also mention a similar sense with the OED. You can say "I don't like that sense," but the fact that it's been entered into main dictionaries means that it has enough usage to warrant an entry. And just saying that you don't like it is a matter of opinion rather than an objective statement. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jul 15 at 12:43
  • @JasonBassford I haven't said anything about whether I like it; I'm saying I wouldn't have understood it with that meaning. I edited the answer to accommodate the fact that you do. – jonathanjo Jul 15 at 14:10

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