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Does the subject of the idiomatic phrase "let someone/something go" have to be understood as ultimately being in charge of freeing someone/something? If that's the case, does the idiom "let someone/something go" impose restrictions on the meaning of the verb it combines with, allowing verbs that imply a full decision control by the subject (decide, intend etc.) but ruling out verbs without such inference (manage, attempt etc.)? Does the idiom work in this example, adapted from a sentence I read in an online newspaper:

She managed to let them go before the stately home burned to the ground.

Or should I use "set them free" (or another alternative to it) as the author of the original sentence did?

Context: Kate ventures into a burning house in order to save Roald and Joe, who are trapped inside (express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1732555/…).

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    Can you give more information on your example? What is "them" and what is the situation? I don't think it requires you to have authority - you could let a caged bird go even if you didn't own the cage or bird. But it's very hard to judge if it fits in your example without more context.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 28, 2023 at 8:47
  • Kate ventures into a burning house in order to save Roald and Joe who are trapped inside (express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1732555/…). I'm wondering whether the idiom "let X go" fits this context and similar contexts where there is an implication that the subject doesn't have a full control over freeing someone/letting someone go. The general meaning of the idiom is "to free a living being" but it doesn't seem to be fully interhangeable with the non-idiomatic phrases expressing this meaning.
    – Notarobot
    Jul 28, 2023 at 9:29
  • I feel that the verb "let" in this idiom retains some connotations of its literal meaning, indicating some sort of permission or enabling something to happen. The subject who permits or allows something to happen is normally understood as having an unquestionable authority/being in charge of the thing they permit, allow, let. In ordinary contexts we can hardly expect to find phrases such as "He attempted/tried.. to allow/permit/let..."
    – Notarobot
    Jul 28, 2023 at 9:51

2 Answers 2

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Let them go is not really appropriate in this context. The men were brought out of a dangerous situation in which they were trapped. Let go suggests that a person or animal has been deliberately imprisoned or caged and someone opens the door so that they are free to leave.

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  • Thank you Kate! So, if we speak of freeing caged animals would "let go" work in a context like : An animal activist was caught attempting to let the circus animals go. Or you would still opt for another alternative phrase to refer to releasing the animals from their cages?
    – Notarobot
    Jul 28, 2023 at 10:53
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    @Notarobot: "let them go" works fine in the context of freeing circus animals. Jul 28, 2023 at 12:03
  • To maybe explain this a little further in terms of your article: the actions of the character Kate, who was rescuing the two men, would not be described with "let them go". However, it might be possible to describe the actions of the "serial killer" that had imprisoned them with "let them go", if he had decided to do so.
    – BadZen
    Jul 29, 2023 at 2:22
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"let go" in this context is a phrasal verb meaning "release", so it is fine. But it might not always be a phrasal verb, e.g. in "She let them go" and "She let them go to the party" the word go does not do the same job.

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  • No, one would never describe the actions of a rescuer with the construction "let go", which implies a situation in which the verb subject had been preventing the object from "going", previously.
    – BadZen
    Jul 29, 2023 at 2:24
  • @BadZen This was exactly my point with the question. "To let someone go" one should be who is holding "someone" in the first place. But, if that's true, why does (according to another contributor) the sentence " An animal activist was caught attempting to let the circus animals go" sound fine? The activist is not the one who kept those animals locked, it was someone else. As I said before, the verb "let" in this idiom still feels to retain its literal meaning of giving permission, or allowing something.
    – Notarobot
    Jul 29, 2023 at 6:02
  • This is why "attempt to let someone go" or "manage to let someone go" sound strange to me in any context. I feel that the verb "let" implies that the subject is in charge of "letting someone go", and most often freeing someone is his/her deliberate deliberate decision. (Not always of course, one can accidentally let someone go, but the implication is still the same - they were previously in charge of "someone's" freedom). The contexts where "try to let someone go" sounds good to me are only those where the subject's insufficient physical/mental faculties prevent them from letting someone go
    – Notarobot
    Jul 29, 2023 at 6:19
  • As in this line from a song: "I tried to let him go. But I kept on loving him instead." Otherwise, it is difficult for me to devise a context where the subject who is in charge of someone's physical freedom "attempts to let them go". Even the more confusing to me is the situation with extending the meaning of "let someone go" to the general meaning of "freeing/liberating someone". In that case (as in the example with the circus artist), the subject IS NOT the person who is preventing "someone" from going free, just a person who is setting them free.
    – Notarobot
    Jul 29, 2023 at 6:28
  • @Notarobot - The meaning of "let him go" is different there. The meaning in your example is not related to "physical freedom", but idiomatically means "to actively begin to forget or not care about something". (sense 1 merriam-webster.com/dictionary/let%20it%20go) It's an unrelated use.
    – BadZen
    Jul 29, 2023 at 13:27

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