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死に馬にむちを打つ - beat [whip, flog] a dead horse

After reading the sentence above, I was wondering when it's appropriate to use 死に to describe when something(or someone?) is dead instead of using 死んでいる or 死んだ.

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

[死]{し}に[馬]{うま} sounds archaic to me. I don't think you can use this 死に for other animals (*死に猫, *死に犬, *死に牛...) at least in modern Japanese. I can only think of [死]{し}に[人]{びと} (and maybe [死]{し}に[金]{がね}?). 死んだ人, [死人]{しにん}, [死者]{ししゃ} are more common.

死んだ/死んでいる馬に鞭を打つ is grammatically fine and makes perfect sense. Maybe 死に馬に鞭を打つ sounds better as a proverb.

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In this context, 死に【しに】 is acting as a prefix meaning "dead" or "death" (e.g. 死神【しにがみ】). Generally speaking, I would say that it is primarily used in set phrases or words, whereas 死んだ can be used more broadly (c.f. 死んだ【しんだ】犬【いぬ】, etc.). In any case, 死に or 死 (both read as しに in this case) should only be used with 大和言葉 (kun-yomi). If it's being used as part of a compound with other characters using 音読み【おんよみ】 then it should be read as し (e.g. 死体【したい】).

The exception to using 死んだ is with people. While 死んだ人 isn't entirely unheard of (and is, in fact, grammatically accurate), it's typically considered too callous for general use. 亡くなった【なくなった】 is more appropriate in this context.

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蛇足ですが、「死体」の元の用字は「屍体{したい}」です…なぜか「死屍{しし}」だけは「死死」にならないようです。 – Yang Muye Mar 24 '14 at 20:08
"死んだ人 isn't entirely unheard of" gives a false impression. 死ぬ with people is very commonly used. It's just that euphemisms are often used when addressing someone directly affected by the death or when showing respect to the deceased. Similar to English "die" vs "pass away". – dainichi Mar 25 '14 at 1:12

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