I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley. The live oaks got a crusty look and the sage-brush was gray. The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way. (John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

Does the highlighted part mean
(1) ‘starved and so they died,’ (to death is a [predictive or resultative] complement)
or (2) ‘starved extremely’? (to death is an adjunct denoting degreee)

  • 3
    Why do you believe it could mean anything other than (1)?
    – Martha
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 6:21
  • It is worth noting that "to starve" typically means to die from the lack of food, so the words "to death" here are technically redundant.
    – Stephan B
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 9:11
  • 5
    @Martha Presumably because of phrases like "bored to death", "frightened to death", and "love [someone] to death", none of which (typically) involve literal death.
    – user230
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 9:40
  • 2
    @Stephan, I disagree. "to starve" can mean to suffer from lack of food without actually dropping dead. But, if "to death" were left off and no further explanation were offered, we might assume it anyway. reference
    – TecBrat
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 3:48

6 Answers 6


It should be noted that in that example Steinbeck is describing cows that would literally die from lack of food. That is a totally correct way to use the phrase, but it isn't the most common use. That phrase is seen and heard most often in a way that is obvious exaggeration and hyperbole, as in a kid coming home from school and telling his mother that he needs a cookie before dinner because he is "starving to death". Neither the kid nor his mother thinks for a second that the child's life is in danger, nor that the kid is being dishonest. In that context, "starving to death" is just an innocent turn of phrase that means "hungry", even just mildly hungry.


Starve means, "to suffer or die because you do not have enough food to eat; to make somebody suffer or die in this way."

The animals were left to starve to death.

In the sentence above, starve to death means the animals suffered because they didn't have enough food to eat, until they died.

There are some phrasal verbs with starve, but none of them can be confused with starve to death.

  • "Starve somebody into [doing] something"
  • "Starve somebody/something of something"
  • "Starve somebody out [of something]"

"Starve to death" means starve for long time without any food or very less food until it dies.


If the question is whether "to death" here is "resultative" versus "an indication of degree", and not whether the cows died because they had no food to eat, I would say "to" here is an indication of degree or extent -- "to such an extent that they died". An archaic form would be "unto death".

To be "bored to death" is to be SO bored... To be "loved to death" is to be SO smothered with love that..."


It simply means: To die by hunger.

There is no need for longer answers.


'Starve to death' has two meanings: one is 'to have nothing to eat until it dies' and the other is literally used to mean 'very hungry'. To avoid any confusions, you can use 'die of starving' in its stead if you really mean it dies after a long period of starving.

  • It is used figuratively to mean very hungry, it literally means to die of starvation.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 15:59

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