Ground Floor


“An elderly woman was the victim of a street robbery which netted the thief just £10. … The offender walked behind the victim for a short time before grabbing her handbag, causing her to fall to the floor.” (My local paper this week)

In this context, I should have written ground rather than floor, as the event took place outside. The Oxford Reference Dictionary gives, as section 7 under floor, “colloq. ground”, but the usual formal meaning of ‘floor’ is a surface under cover, and ‘ground’ is a surface covered only by the sky.

This wording explains why ‘floor’ can also be the surface of a forest, cave or ocean, all of which have a covering that is not directly the sky.

Interestingly, although I can accept either ‘cave floor’ or ‘floor of the cave’, and ‘sea/ocean floor’ or (less easily) ‘floor of the sea/ocean’, for ‘forest floor’ I can’t accept the alternative ‘floor of the forest’. And although wood is more-or-less synonymous with forest, I can’t accept ‘*wood floor’ at all.

Do others agree? or is this simply a part of my idiolect?


  1. I’d say it was idiolect for “floor of the forest”, although that one does have a distinctly purple color to it. As for “*wood floor”, I’d suggest that the problem is the other meaning of wood (i.e. made out of timber) making the sense too ambiguous.

  2. I’ll corroborate you on all counts; “floor of the sea” and “floor of the forest” both feel clunky to me. I’m from Seattle, if that helps you find an isolect. I’ve noted some floor/ground mixing among ESL speakers, and must admit I’ve made mixed them myself on a few occasions.

  3. I agree. Forest floor seems like quite set phrase to me, perhaps aided by the alliteration, but wood or jungle floor or canopy doesn’t ring much of a bell. I suppose at a pinch you could have an outside floor if it was a carefully prepared surface for dancing or wrestling or something — what’s the English for dojo? Aha — a threshing floor!

  4. My daughter is now 22 and has said floor for ground all her life. She has also lived in New York City all her life with only brief trips elsewhere, and perhaps the asphalt and concrete outside seems to her tolerably continuous with the hardwood and linoleum inside.

  5. James D – I thought about this, but for the material of the floor I would always say “wooden floor” rather than “wood floor”.

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