The Christmas tree might have caught a little bit on fire.

amateurr

Senior Member
Russian
"The Christmas tree might have caught a little bit on fire."

I don't understand the statement at all. I mean it doesn't make any sense to me until I replace the "on" with "of" "The Christmas tree might have caught a lillt bit of fire." or just leave out the "on" as in "The Christmas tree might have caught a little bit fire."

What do you think?

Thanks!
 
  • TropicalMontana

    Senior Member
    American English
    Yes, the expression 'on fire' (burning) comes as a whole.

    The building is on fire. - The building is burning.

    The building caught on fire - The building began to burn.
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I hadn't thought about this before, but I think it goes like this:
    Usually, when there is supposed to be a fire, we say something is burning: the wood in the fireplace is burning; the candles are burning, etc.

    On the other hand, if there is not supposed to be a fire, we say that something is on fire: the house is on fire, the hills behind Los Angeles are on fire, etc.

    Both caught fire and caught on fire are possible, but here I think the choice was influenced by the fact that a Christmas tree is not supposed to be on fire.
    "A little bit" is, of course, a joke. Something either is on fire or it isn't. This is not normally a matter of degree. Whoever says this line is pretending to minimize the event in a comical way, by saying "the Christmas tree might have caught a little bit on fire."

    Normally people would say that the fire was small, or was quickly put out, or only burned a little bit of the tree, if that was what happened.

    Edit: It's reassuring to see that xjm agrees. :)
     
    Last edited:

    xjm

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    As others have noted, for something to be "a little bit on fire" is odd; something is generally on fire, or not. However, it sounds facetious to me; the speaker might be jokingly downplaying the fact that the tree was on fire. As in:

    Father: Was everything alright while I was gone?
    Son: Well, um, the Christmas tree might have kinda sorta caught on fire a little bit.
    (Note: "kinda sorta" is slang, from "kind of" and "sort of".)

    Edit: Beaten to this response. As Cagey said. :)
     

    BillyTheBanana

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I don't think anyone mentioned this: Even though "catch fire" and "catch on fire" are both okay, you could not say for the original sentence that the tree "caught a little bit fire" because of the words "a little bit" interrupting the expression. It would have to be "caught fire a little bit".
     

    Nymeria

    Senior Member
    English - Barbadian/British/educated in US universities blend
    I hadn't thought about this before, but I think it goes like this:
    Usually, when there is supposed to be a fire, we say something is burning: the wood in the fireplace is burning; the candles are burning, etc.

    On the other hand, if there is not supposed to be a fire, we say that something is on fire: the house is on fire, the hills behind Los Angeles are on fire, etc.

    Both caught fire and caught on fire are possible, but here I think the choice was influenced by the fact that a Christmas tree is not supposed to be on fire.
    "A little bit" is, of course, a joke. Something either is on fire or it isn't. This is not normally a matter of degree. Whoever says this line is pretending to minimize the event in a comical way, by saying "the Christmas tree might have caught a little bit on fire."

    Normally people would say that the fire was small, or was quickly put out, or only burned a little bit of the tree, if that was what happened.

    Edit: It's reassuring to see that xjm agrees. :)
    Agreed, but burning can also be used for things that are not supposed to be burning. e.g the burning bush.
     
    On the other hand, if there is not supposed to be a fire, we say that something is on fire: the house is on fire, the hills behind Los Angeles are on fire, etc.
    I had not thought about this before, either, but I think you're right in terms of the most common usage.

    However, sometimes we use "burning" instead of "on fire." To my ear, doing so adds a note of drama.

    My house is burning!

    The hills of LA County are burning!


    The first evokes an image of a near-hysterical owner watching his home burn. The second evokes an image of a near-hysterical news reporter seeking ratings.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    Burning might mean "smoldering", whereas on fire is more likely to mean "in flames". Thus "on fire" tends to sound more dramatic than "burning". This is part of the irony of the sample sentence. A Christmas tree on fire is a serious matter, but the sentence is trying to suggest it might not be "all that bad".

    It does sound as though someone is trying to be truthful without coming face to face with the repercussions (for the time being). Sounds like a classical situation comedy.
     
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