Does the subject of the verb "slew/slay" have to be a person? Consider the following sentence I wrote:

Ram then fired an arrow that slew Subahu.

Is the above sentence correct? Here, "an arrow" is the subject of "slew".

Or should I write as follows?

Ram then slew Subahu by firing an arrow at him.

  • 1
    There must be thousands of written instances of slain by a bullet in Google Books. Which is semantically much the same as slain by an arrow. There won't be so many instances of slain by a gun or ...a bow, because they're just the means of delivery - it's the bullet or arrow that does the actal slaying. Commented Apr 13 at 15:21
  • The question posed in a more conventional way is: Can a person slay another?
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 13 at 19:12

2 Answers 2


Slay is usually used with a person doing the killing, rather than referring to a weapon or other force. "...an arrow that killed Subahu" would be better.

Merriam-Webster has a usage note that says

SLAY is a chiefly literary term implying deliberateness and violence but not necessarily motive.

A weapon or inanimate object cannot do something deliberately.

It is commonly used in the passive to indicate that someone was killed, without specifying who did the slaying, like "Two people, one a teenager, were slain Tuesday in separate incidents in the District, the police said." (Dictionary.com)

Of Merriam-Webster's examples, those that indicate who or what is doing the slaying all involve people or groups of people:

Among the dozen police officers killed this year, at least eight have been slain by armed groups.

Players work together to strategize and slay the monsters by rolling dice and choosing cards.

Those lyrics allude to the March 2023 mass shooting at the Covenant School, an elementary school in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville in which three adults and three children were slain by an assailant.

  • I have a copy of Gustave Doré's engraving 'The Disobedient Prophet Slain by a Lion'. 'Man Slain by a Tiger' is a print by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. 'After the murder Orestes calls upon. Zeus to avenge the orphaned brood of an eagle slain by an adder.' The Serpent at the Breast William Whallon, 1958. 'Tragically slain by a scorpion but immortalized in legend, Orion now resides among the heavens.' Commented Apr 13 at 13:48
  • 1
    "Guns don't kill people, I kill people", in the words of Jon Lajoie. But in the passive, slain by a bullet is common enough - by can both identify the agent performing an action and the means of performing it. Commented Apr 13 at 18:49
  • I just love answers that just tell it like it is. Sure, an animal can slay you but it's ain't common. But I draw the line at insect.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 13 at 19:04
  • @Lambie - "Spenser's poem Muiopotmos, or The Fate of the Butterflie (1591) tells the tale of a butterfly, Clarion, grimly slain by a spider, Aragnoll". [Oxford] Essays in Criticism, Volume 69, Issue 2, April 2019. Commented Apr 13 at 19:10
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey Well, one can see where poor old Lewis got his prosody. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 13 at 19:16

'Slew' is a synonym for 'killed', and yes, someone can be killed by an arrow. Your first sentence is correct. So is the second. No ancient person ever said 'Arrows don't slay people; people do'.

If someone is killed by an arrow, bullet, hurled rock, etc, the final cause of the death is that object, but the first ('proximate') cause is the person firing or throwing the object.

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