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Which verb should I use here?

He opened the stove and the fire from the stove [engulfed/jumped on/covered/devoured] him. "Help! Help!" - he shouted at once. "I'm on fire!"

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Mar 28 '11 at 13:08

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Might be better for writers.se? – JSBձոգչ Mar 28 '11 at 12:49
I agree with @JSBangs. The writers crew would probably be more suited for this question. – MrHen Mar 28 '11 at 12:56
OP doesn't actually say he's looking for a wonderfully evocative term for use in his hopefully deathless prose, which would make it a candidate for writers.se. He may just want to know what word (cliche?) most people would use in common speech, which I think properly belongs at english.se – FumbleFingers Apr 1 '11 at 17:35
@FumbleFingers - "He may just want to know what word (cliche?) most people would use in common speech" - You are right. I was quite surprised when I discovered that my question had been moved to writers.se. As a person who is merely studying English, I, of course, wasn't trying to write any prose. – brilliant Apr 2 '11 at 3:33
@brilliant: Well thank you for that acknowledgement. I'm afraid I'm pretty much of a noob to english.se myself so I don't know whether or how one can avoid such slip-ups. You'll be ok because you'll know to explain more exactly what kind of answer you want, and why. But other students of English will probably get wrongly moved in future. Incidentally, am I right in suspecting you asked what you did because there's a 'standard' expression in Taiwanese? – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '11 at 22:24
up vote 7 down vote accepted

How big is this stove?

I'm not asking idly. "Engulfed" means (as noted by others) "completely surrounded." If a fire engulfs someone, he is surrounded, head to foot, in flames. How can he be yelling that he's on fire if he's burning everywhere? And how can he be swallowed by fire if it's just a cooking fire from something burning in an oven? (I assume "oven," as you don't open a stove. A stove is a rangetop of freestanding burners.)

Maybe your problem is that it's not that he is on fire. It's one or a few body parts which are burning.

so howzabout this:

He opened the oven to check on the [food/dish]. Flames roared out, catching him full in the face. He shrieked and batted at his burning hair and skin with the oven mitts. Hot grease ran down the gloves to his thin sleeves, where it started to smoke. "Help! I'm on fire!" he shouted.
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@Lauren - Yes, you are right. It's just an oven, so now your variant looks to me more suitable. "catching him full in the face" - Is "to catch <smbd.> full in face" a phrasal verb in English? Can full be dropped here? – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 13:54
@brilliant: You can say "in the face" and drop "full" if you want. "Full in the face" is an idiom which emphasizes that it went straight into his face and has covered his entire face. "He caught X in the face" means that X struck him in the face and he was surprised by X. A variant might be "He caught the blow [meaning the punch] in the stomach" meaning "The other guy punched him in the stomach, he was surprised by the punch, and he didn't defend himself." Does that help? – Lauren Ipsum Mar 28 '11 at 14:44
Yes, and ["Help! I'm on fire!" he shouted] is much stronger than ["Help! Help!" - he shouted at once. "I'm on fire!"]. – Panda Mar 28 '11 at 15:20
Sorry, English idioms can be a little confusing, and my fire example is inverted. The "catching" comes from the movement of the item (flames, fist) towards the person who is surprised. Let me reword: "He caught the punch in the stomach = he was struck by the fist in the stomach" and "He caught the flames in the face = he was struck by the flames in the face." Flames don't strike, but the movement is out of the oven at and his face; the other example is that the fist moves towards the person and strikes him in his stomach. The flames do not receive a blow from X. The flames ARE X. Clearer? – Lauren Ipsum Mar 28 '11 at 21:05
@brilliant: ask away. :) 1) Yes, you can add "full" or "right." 2) No, the idiom uses "the," not "his." It's understood that he couldn't catch the flames in somebody else's face, so the face has to be his. 3) I am reluctant to accept your revision because the flames, not being a sentient actor, need to be attached to the action (burning his face). If this were a fistfight, you could say "He opened the door and Nancy rushed out. She swung her fist, and he caught the punch full in the stomach." (cont'd) – Lauren Ipsum Mar 29 '11 at 14:19

I would say either engulfed him, if you want to imply that he was completely surrounded with flames, or jumped on him or jumped toward him.

But, most importantly, I would talk about “the flames” rather than “the fire”.

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@F'x - But, most importantly, I would talk about “the flames” rather than “the fire”. - Can you, please, explain why not "the fire"? – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 12:52
I'm not sure, it just feels better. I think the flames personify the fire, so that the flames jump or engulf, rather than the fire itself. It seems to build a better image in my mind… – F'x Mar 28 '11 at 13:03
"Fire" is a collective noun; "flames" are individual things (as much as a single flame in the middle of a conflagration can be "individual"). "The fire engulfed him" is an image of a blob of fire swamping him like water -- it's amorphous. "The flames engulfed him" is a series of tentacles seizing him and crawling up his limbs, this one and that one and that one and another AND ANOTHER until he's surrounded. Much scarier. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 28 '11 at 13:30
@F'x - I think the flames personify the fire, so that the flames jump or engulf, rather than the fire itself - WOW!!! I never thought of that! – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 13:32
@Lauren - Thank you for these explanations. Very clear. – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 13:34

It depends on what you want to say/imply.

"Engulfed" implies the fire completely surrounded him.

"Jumped on" is an odd one, because it implies that it only affected a particular part of his body. It doesn't sound severe, either.

"Covered" is similar to engulfed, but isn't as strong.

"Devoured" also has a similar connotation to engulfed, but is probably stronger, and it also implies that he was "eaten" by the flames (which raises questions as to how he is still able to shout for help).

Therefore, I'd use "engulfed".

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Thank you!!! – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 13:31

Flames are commonly said to leap out in this context. You don't need a word to specify exactly how the flames actually interacted with the person because your narrative continues with him saying (in no uncertain terms) that he has also been set ablaze.

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Thank you. – brilliant Mar 28 '11 at 20:18
Leapt. Absolutely. – Lynn Beighley Mar 30 '11 at 18:04
Is what is "commonly said" a good standard by which to judge writing? – David Aldridge Apr 22 '13 at 8:53
@David: Not necessarily. But in this case, I believe the OP isn't even a native speaker of English, and there's surely no doubt that leap out is far more common in his context than any of engulfed/jumped on/covered/devoured. I also think it's unlikely a native speaker would say/write He opened the stove and the fire from the stove... Firstly, it would invariably be flames, and secondly, repeating the stove is bordering on "unnatural". OP's version doesn't reflect "creative use of language", so much as lack of familiarity with natural English. – FumbleFingers Apr 22 '13 at 12:38

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