Oxford's Collocations dictionary - 10th edition - for Android mobile app (licensed).

wade verb



  • slowly
  • ashore
    The men waded ashore.
  • across, back, out


  • across, in, into, through, to
    We waded across the stream.
    She climbed overboard and waded back to shore.


  • wade knee-deep, waist-deep, etc. in sth
    Rescuers had to wade waist-deep in floodwater.

'Rescuers had to wade waist-deep in floodwater.' Why not 'Rescuers had to wade in waist-deep floodwater.'?

  • 9
    It's the same with knee-deep. Native speakers much prefer to use these constructions adverbially (modifying the verb wade), rather than adjectivally (modifying the noun floodwater). In practice it means exactly the same thing either way. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:11
  • 15
    Please don't post pictures of text. They're inaccessible to people with visual impairments, hard to read on mobile, and in this case, it's larger than necessary and contains a bunch of irrelevant details. I submitted an edit to fix it; please go back and approve it, or copy it if approving it isn't possible.
    – wjandrea
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 1:14
  • 3
    The easiest way to understand the difference is if you imagine crouching down in the water. The water is still waist-deep, but you are now shoulders-deep in the water. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 12:25
  • 3
    The suggested edit that the OP (Vy Do) rejected earlier was indeed helpful, because it transcribed the text that is in the image. Images cannot be searched, so all those listed examples with "wade" e.g. we waded across the stream are not searchable, and cannot be read by people whose eyesight is impaired and need to use screen readers.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 15:07
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA Since this is one of the powers moderators have, I overrode the author's vote on the edit (or rather one of them) for exactly the reasons you (and others) have mentioned. Feel free to flag or ping me in chat if you see something similar happening.
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 17:07

5 Answers 5


The dictionary is explaining an idiomatic phrase of the word "wade". That is you can adverbially modify "wade" with an expression "knee-deep". You can do this without mentioning what you are wading in. The dictionary specifically mentions this because you might not guess that this expression is allowed in English.

It would also be possible to use "knee-deep" as an adjective to describe the water, (and say "wade in knee-deep water") but that isn't the expression that the dictionary is explaining.

There is a difference. If, for example you are at the beach, you might wade knee-deep, although the sea gets much deeper.

  • 6
    I’m not sure you can really say there’s a difference. Yes, the sea gets much deeper, but at the point you’re wading, it’s knee-deep. If you’re wading knee-deep in water, that means the water at the point where you are is knee-deep (unless you’re Jesus). I can’t think of a way the two uses would end up with significantly different meanings, beyond describing the wading vs the water. (Though it is true, as PLL points out below, that we would not talk about ‘the knee-deep sea’ as a noun phrase, so if the water in question is a specific body, it may not work.) Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 1:32
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    I was thinking along the same lines as JamesK. A ford might be waist-deep, but a canny traveller might know that there are stepping stones which will allow him to get wet only up to his knees. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 11:09
  • 4
    Even at the exact point you're wading, things might be more… muddy. You might not be able to wade less than the depth of water, but you could be wading significantly deeper if you sink into mud.
    – gidds
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 14:17
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    @MarkMorganLloyd Yup. I got caught on the wrong side of a stream that had increased considerably. By watching the water and probing with my poles I was able to very slowly pick my way across never going deeper than about half the water depth--only one little splash getting in my boots. (I could have safely just walked across--but I would have ended up very muddy. I was not expecting a water crossing!) Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 2:13

To wade waist-deep ("Somebody waded waist-deep in water ...") refers to the wader wading in water up to their waist, whereas waist-deep water refers to the depth of the water using the height of a human waist as a rough unit of measure. The latter refers to the depth of the water, the former describes the wader's mode/situation/experience of wading.

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    True. You can wade out into the ocean until you are waist-deep, but that doesn't mean the ocean is waist-deep.
    – barbecue
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 15:51
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    @barbecue: Absolutely — and so indeed one can say “He was wading waist-deep in the ocean”, but not “He was wading in the waist-deep ocean” in any normal context.
    – PLL
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 17:46
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    You make a good point but when we say floodwater in this context, we mean the water in their immediate vicinity. If they're waist-deep then the only floodwater we care about is also waist-deep, and it doesn't really matter if it's 10 feet deep somewhere else.
    – Thierry
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 1:20
  • 4
    @Thierry: Not sure who "you" is in your comment, but that's not my essential point. My point is that "wading waist-deep in water" describes the action relative to the actor, who is wet up to their waist, whereas with "wading in waist-deep water" "waist-deep" is an attribute of the water. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 10:43
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    A corollary of that distinction is, of course, the fact that "wading waste-deep in {x}" is not necessarily a guide to how deep {x} can get, not unless {x} is known to be of uniform depth throughout. When wading waste deep in a quarry pit or in the ocean on a sand-bar, the depth of the water can change suddenly, and you may no longer be wading but swimming or treading water. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 12:22

Rescuers had to wade in waist-deep floodwater is perfectly acceptable English. It tells us that there was water about three feet deep where the rescuers had to go.

There is a very slight difference in emphasis. Rescuers had to wade waist-deep in [the] floodwater suggests that we already know that there was a flood, and tells us how far in the rescuers had to go.


The meanings of those two sentences are largely the same, but there's a slight difference: these two sentences say different things about how deep the water could be.

waist-deep in floodwater

The actual depth of the water is unknown, but where the rescuers are, it is waist-deep.

in waist-deep floodwater

The depth of the water is up to a human waist. The rescuers may or may not be in that deep.

Both sentences are perfectly valid English.

  • 2
    This is what struck me. The floodwater may have been significantly deeper in places, but where the rescuers were was waist-deep.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 17:48

In addition to the points raised by others I think there is also the nuance that waist-deep in floodwater describes the level of water in relation to whoever is wading. Obviously we would get a different impression, if a news report described children fleeing for life wading waist-deep in water instead of the rescuers.

The same situation can, of course, be conveyed using waist-deep as an adjective. But the use of the phrase in waist-deep floodwater does not, in my opinion, necessarily need a human subject as a point of reference at all. Or, in the sentence the cars couldn't make it through the waist-deep floodwater I would mentally place an average sized adult standing next to a car to get an idea of how deep the water is.

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