Falling Prey to Error

By Maeve Maddox

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In researching articles for Daily Writing Tips, I stumble upon all kinds of interesting topics and curious examples of usage.

One recent search led me to a site dedicated to clinical philosophy, where I found this sentence in an article about the importance of words in the exchange between therapist and patient:

Furthermore, we all too readily fall pray to a phantasy of having, or of attempting to achieve, a purely descriptive discourse.

Naturally, I lost interest in the article as I pondered “fall pray to.”

When I come across a misused idiom, my first question is, “Are other people out there making the same mistake?”

I wasn’t surprised to find examples of “fall pray” on Facebook,

Don’t let your high-speed application fall pray to signal integrity issues.

or Twitter,

The BBC is without doubt a world leading creative force that must never be allowed to fall pray to ill advised & ignorant puppets.

I was surprised to find the error on professional sites.

An urban design team understands “how quickly discussions [about community projects] can fall pray to misunderstandings.”

A Michigan university site admonishes readers: “We must ALL be proactive in our own education and not fall pray to inaction.”

A paper on the Science Direct site warns about the dangers of unexamined emotions:

awareness of personal emotions: the ability to permanently monitor (our) feelings constitutes the fundamental emotional skill that supports the building of all the other skills because not being able to recognize our true feelings makes us vulnerable and fall pray to them;

A Florida law firm warns about the danger of dog attacks:

Unfortunately, children often fall pray to such attacks as they cannot fully appreciate the potential dangers in approaching some dogs or are simply too small to defend against such an attack.

On IMDB, Paramount+ advertises a movie in which “A group of 7 teenagers decide to go camping. One by one, they fall pray to a mysterious killer who lives in the forest.”

In most of these examples, the expression is used figuratively. The last two come closer to the literal meaning of the correct word, prey, of being hunted for food.

Both pray and prey are pronounced the same.

Pray (verb): to make an earnest or formal petition; especially, to ask God or a god for something, to request in prayer. In later use also in weakened sense: to wish for fervently, to hope.

Worried for her son, she went to the base’s small chapel to pray for his safety.

Don’t just pray for a job-be specific about how you’d intend to use your skills.

The word prey functions as both a noun and a verb:

prey (noun): a living being which an animal seizes in order to devour it; a person who is pursued, plundered, or habitually exploited by others.

Oxyrrhis marina can cannibalize its own species when no other prey is available.

Thomas Jefferson observed that the poor have always been the prey of the rich.

to prey (verb) of an animal to seize, kill, or hunt. Used with on. Of a human being, to exploit, swindle, or otherwise plunder.

As the wild animals disappear, tigers prey on farm animals and sometimes humans.

They [scam artists who target seniors] prey on the hopes of those who are experiencing ill health, pain and fear.

“To fall prey to” is a useful expression when discussing literal or figurative predation.

Save pray for intense hoping or for communication with the divine.

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1 Response to “Falling Prey to Error”

  • Julie Link

    I’m always fascinated that people who misuse idioms don’t wonder about the words in the phrase. What could “fall pray to” possibly mean? Even when used non-literally, a figure of speech must convey an understandable idea.

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