We passed through the narrow mouth of the cove with the ugly rocks and waving kelp close on either side, turned to the east, and sailed merrily up the bay as the sun broke through the mists and made the tossing waters sparkle around us. We were a curious-looking party on that bright morning, but we were feeling happy. We even broke into song, and, but for our Robinson Crusoe appearance, a casual observer might have taken us for a picnic party sailing in a Norwegian fjord or one of the beautiful sounds of the west coast of New Zealand.

Above is a part of what Ernest Shackleton - an arctic explorer wrote about his journey. I don't understand what "tossing waters" mean. I've never seen water use as plural. I tried to google image about "tossing waters" and find nothing. What I thought is that the sun break the mists to smaller parts of ... waters ? Am I right ?

  • 2
    merriam-webster.com/dictionary/toss, see meaning 1a for intransitive verb.
    – Kreiri
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 17:34
  • 4
    I don't think this should be closed. Yes, a ship can be tossed by waves, but I don't think "tossing waters" meaning in this context is completely explained by the dictionary definition of toss, especially for learners.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 18:51

1 Answer 1


As Kreiri said in her comment, this is using tossing as an intransitive verb: MW: Toss to move restlessly or turbulently

As far as water being plural, see definition #23 here: Oxford Dictionary: Water (waters) The water of a particular sea, river, or lake.
I can't come up for a rule for when one uses water and when one uses waters. There is definitely overlap, but in this case, water would sound strange to me. Hopefully someone else will be able to pin it down.

The other subtlety here is that this verb is in its present participle form, acting as an adjective (modifying "waters.") The waters are not being tossed, they are the ones (intransitively) tossing.

In combination,

...the sun broke through the mists and made the waters (waters that were moving restlessly and turbulently) sparkle around us.

  • Also see this discussion of waters ell.stackexchange.com/questions/20518/…
    – Adam
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 19:27
  • +1 especially for pointing out the subtle difference between tossing waters and tossed waters. Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 20:06
  • 1
    I think in this context, the author is using waters to convey a feeling of place. The water itself isn't the focus; the waters of the bay are moving and sparkling in the sunlight making a nice view. If the tossing water was making the crew seasick, I might choose not to use waters over water. It is difficult to come up with a rule.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 20:10

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