What is this "to"?
February 12, 2015 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Please explain the meaning of "to" in these sentences. Does it mean "in the direction of sth, towards sth"? It is not easy for me to get the nuance of this preposition here. 1 I rose to my feet. 2 I helped him to his feet. 3 I jumped to my feet. Thank you.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like the idiomatic phrase you're asking about is really "to one's feet" -- which means "to a standing position."
posted by aught at 6:10 AM on February 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yes, it's as if the speaker just omitted the word "stand" immediately following the "to" - kind of the way contractions work.
posted by mmiddle at 6:11 AM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


The phrase "rose to my feet" or "jumped up to his feet" means they are getting into a standing position. It's about the act of rising from one position (sitting or laying down) to a standing position.

A similar phrase is "I was on my feet all day" which means I was standing or walking around all day.
posted by barnone at 6:12 AM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


From the definitions listed on dictionary.com, I would say this is the one one use here: (used for expressing contact or contiguity) on; against; beside; upon: a right uppercut to the jaw; Apply varnish to the surface.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:18 AM on February 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


The idiom extends to other body parts and postures. You can "fall to your knees" (kneeling) or "drop to your belly" (prone). It means that the body part named is in contact with the ground (as suggested by the definition If only I had a penguin... quoted).
posted by Rock Steady at 6:31 AM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"To" has a lot of uses. I found a couple of definitions that might apply here:

expressing a point reached at the end of a range or after a period of time.
"a drop in profits from $105 million to around $75 million"

approaching or reaching (a particular condition).
"Christopher's expression changed from amazement to joy"

expressing the result of a process or action.
"smashed to smithereens"

posted by bleep at 6:39 AM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


This seems more idiomatic to me. What I mean is, the "to" is just part of the phrase, rather than actually expressing a particular meaning in the phrase. You can't really replace "to" in those phrases with any other word and have it make sense or sound right. Maybe this is just because English is my native language and I haven't thought about it to deeply. There are just some phrases like this that have "to" as an integral part of them: "come to your senses", "here's to you", etc.

Following bleep's example, I looked on Dictionary.com and found some more definitions that might more closely fit the meaning, especially this one:

2 a —used as a function word to indicate purpose, intention, tendency, result, or end
posted by natteringnabob at 7:00 AM on February 12, 2015


I think many of the above responses do not answer the question. (Although barnone's does.) in all three of your examples, "to" signifies a change in one's posture -- that is, an alteration from one state to a different state of posture. In all three of your examples, the first state is sitting or lying down, but the second state is standing up. Similarly, you could travel from one place to another: that is a change not in posture, but in location. Very generally, 'to' signifies a change: that is, first there is something, then there is something different.
posted by Mr. Justice at 7:04 AM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


The missing idiom here is "on [my/your/his/one's] feet". So, "to" means in the direction of, or towards, that state: the state of being on one's feet. "I jumped to my feet" means "I jumped to [being on] my feet.

Confusingly, it is incorrect to write "I jumped to being on my feet", though that's essentially what is meant by the sentence "I jumped to my feet".

"To" is often used this way (as moving towards a different state of being). For example, "That brought me to tears" (which means, to cause me to cry), or "His angry speech brought the meeting to a close."
posted by amtho at 7:09 AM on February 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Yeah, my feeling is that the change in state is key--from implied state X to explicit state Y. Perhaps what's confusing is that the word feet is being used as a metonym for a standing position.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:34 AM on February 12, 2015


In all of your examples, "to" is functionally a contraction for "on to" -- 1 I rose onto my feet. 2 I helped him onto his feet. 3 I jumped onto my feet. See: onto.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:24 AM on February 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


Also: 1 I rose up onto my feet. 2 I helped him up onto his feet. 3 I jumped up onto my feet.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:30 AM on February 12, 2015


> This seems more idiomatic to me. What I mean is, the "to" is just part of the phrase, rather than actually expressing a particular meaning in the phrase.

Exactly. You shouldn't worry so much about what "to" means; little words like that are notoriously hard to pin down. Learn the expressions as units.

> In all of your examples, "to" is functionally a contraction for "on to"

No, this is not true.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on February 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm voting for the change in state as well, with "to" in that idiomatic expression signifying that you have gone "all the way from X to Y" - in this case, from seated all the way to standing on your feet, but as a native English speaker it feels like that usage also has a few parallels with "from morning to night" or "from start to finish." But it's so idiomatic that pinning it down is hard.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:36 AM on February 12, 2015


What's missing here is the definition of an "idiom":
an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements
In other words, the meaning of the idiom is not directly related to a literal reading of the word or words used to express it.

So the answer to your question, "What does 'to' mean in this?" is "'to' is part of an idiom and cannot be interpreted individually or directly."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:40 AM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


2. is somewhat different than 1 and 3 in that it could easily mean " I helped him to (get to) his feet". I believe the sense of the first 'to' is the infinitive form of the verb 'get' and the second 'to' is the idiomatic form that you are using.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:15 AM on February 12, 2015


[so long as we're explaining meanings to people, could someone tell me what "sth" in the OP's question means?]
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 1:25 PM on February 12, 2015


I think 'sth' here stands for 'something'.
posted by amtho at 1:36 PM on February 12, 2015


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