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I was reading an article and came across that phrase referring to a writer who "fell sway to influences." I understood what it was saying (give way to, fall prey to, etc.), especially after finding out more examples by searching the exact phrase on Google, but I cannot make sense of its syntactic structure, and I couldn't find anything specifically on how it works. I am particularly curious about what exact role "sway" is playing there.

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  • Requires context.
    – Sam
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:35
  • what context, specifically? because i am merely curious about the syntactic structure of that phrase. the meaning and usage are clear enough. if examples are needed, i can provide them, but i don't think they are. Sep 13, 2023 at 10:51
  • Conjecturally, sway is related to being quiet, silent, suppressed, recumbent, aswoon, kneeling, bending, lacking rigidity, and the fixed expression fall sway to someone/something may be semantically related to the adjectival form of that verb. Cf "fall afoul of". Sep 13, 2023 at 10:53

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To fall sway to X is a very uncommon usage compared to fall under the sway of X...

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There's no doubt they mean exactly the same thing, but I see there are less than half-a-dozen written instances of fell sway to in Google Books before 1975. So although it would normally be understood by native speakers, I certainly wouldn't endorse its use by learners today.

Because it's an idiom, we can't necessarily explain the "logic" of the usage, but I think it may gain at least some traction by association with alternative phrasings such as fall prey / victim to [something / someone powerful or captivating]. Alliteration with the very common collocation fall away (drop off, fall back) may also be a factor.

The literal meaning of sway centres around rhythmic back-and-forth motion, but the sense intended here is more metaphoric - it's the full Oxford English Dictionary definition 1.6a...

sway
Power of rule or command; sovereign power or authority; dominion, rule

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  • (I think)This phrase is not common. (In modern English)
    – Sam
    Sep 13, 2023 at 11:04
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    Well, I did say it's a very uncommon usage in my first sentence. And my usage chart obviously confirms that in spades! So there's no need to think it's uncommon - you can safely say you know it's uncommon (even though it does seem to be on the increase in recent decades). Sep 13, 2023 at 11:07
  • See the link in my answer. It's not all that rare. Sep 13, 2023 at 11:13
  • Thanks. It is very plausible that it's indeed a shortening to align with 'fall prey/victim/etc. to'. It was the first time I came across it and it was in a fairly typical and recent piece of writing. Weirded me out and Google did not return any forum discussions on it. Sep 13, 2023 at 11:16
  • @TimR: You don't think my usage chart is convincing, then?! :) I must admit I wasn't expecting such a huge disparity in prevalence - especially since I could only really choose one alternative construction, so I'm ignoring even less common forms, such as fell to the sway of X. Sep 13, 2023 at 11:27
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To "fall sway to X" means "to fall under the control or strong influence of X".

The collocation is alive and well.

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  • No doubt it is, so much so I saw it in a piece of writing that is very recent and using very familiar language. But it struck me because unlike with 'fall prey to' or 'fall victim to', or other examples, sway, as an element of the idiom, is not so readily understandable in relation to the expression. I saw you mentioned it's probably being used in its adjectival sense, but it's not something to immediately come to mind. I know speculations about the origins and structure of idioms are often inconclusive, but I just had to check out if someone had more to say than I could find on Google alone. Sep 13, 2023 at 11:29
  • Your "alive and well" gives the impression this usage has retained currency, but as I pointed out in my own answer, Google Books records less than half-a-dozen instances of fell sway to before 1975. It's gaining a (still very low) level of currency it never had in the past - even though the first written instance is well over 200 years ago. Sep 13, 2023 at 11:48
  • I don't have an explanation for the resurgence. The rhyme with prey? Sep 13, 2023 at 12:12
  • Until a few decades ago, the fall sway to... version was hundreds of times less common than fall under the sway of... Today, it accounts for nearly 1 in 10 usages in AmE (not even 1 in 20 in BrE), so my guess is the relatively higher number of non-native Anglophones in the US is a factor favouring the shorter phrasing. Especially given that the noun sway = influence is a very rare meaning today, compared to the verb sway (swing slowly and rhythmically back and forth), so maybe less competent speakers might use it without knowing exactly what they're saying, or why. Sep 13, 2023 at 12:50
  • I'd have to disagree that sway meaning "influence, hegemony" is rare today. books.google.com/ngrams/… Sep 13, 2023 at 16:33

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