Does “Raze” Need “to the Ground”?

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A reader asks about the sentence: “Vikings razed many monasteries to the ground.”

Is not “to the ground” in this statement superfluous? Where else could it be razed to?

The question puts me in mind of Lear’s response when his daughter proposed to reduce some of his amenities because he didn’t need them:

Reason not the need! The poorest beggar in some rag is superfluous.

Strictly speaking, “to the ground” is not needed after the word razed. The fraze.it site shows plenty of current examples that do without the phrase. Here are three:

Neighbors say a garage there will be razed to make way for a new cooling station.

The Tacoma Mall Twin has been razed and replaced by a Krispy Creme doughnut shop.

The outer shell of the historic ballpark has been razed, but the field remains.

On the other hand, razed followed by “to the ground” is well represented:

Zawiyah’s central mosque, which served as a rebel HQ, has been razed to the ground.

Grozny, its capital, which was razed to the ground by the Russians, has been rebuilt.

The glorious edifices erected by Mahadji Shinde and his chiefs were razed to the ground.

The verb raze entered English from French in the twelfth century. Since then, it has been used with numerous meanings, most of which are now categorized as “obsolete” or “rare.”

The earliest example given in the OED of raze used with the meaning “to tear down, demolish, or level a building, town, etc.” is from the sixteenth century. From then on, structures are razed “to the earth” as well as “to the ground.” From the seventeenth century, the addition of “to the ground” seems to become optional, but continues to be common.

Although most things are razed “to the ground,” making the prepositional phrase redundant, that’s not always the case. Raze can mean “erase” and “remove” as well as “destroy.” Kings can be razed from their thrones. A people’s culture can be razed by their conquerors.

But, yes, generally speaking, things that are razed are demolished down to the foundations as if they never were. So, why add the adverbial phrase?

One practical reason is the fact that not everyone is as alive to language as the readers of this column.

Raze and raise are homonyms. They are also antonyms. Some listeners might do a double-take if, when hearing that a building has been “razed,” they first think of “raised.”

In speech, the “to the ground” can’t hurt. In written expression, the qualifier is not needed, but including it is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical fault. Apart from providing clarity, it can add pathos, as in this Twitter caption under a photo of children displaced by war:

Look closely at these children. Are they really that different from yours? Can you honestly say they deserve to watch their homes razed to the ground in front of their eyes?

To see your home razed is bad. To see it razed to the ground seems even worse.

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