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The spell control water says:

Until the spell ends, you control any freestanding water inside an area you choose that is a cube up to 100 feet on a side.

I understand what "standing water" is:

any body of stagnant water, including puddles, ponds, rainwater, drain water, reservoirs etc — Collins English Dictionary

and I understand what "freestanding" means:

standing apart; not attached to or supported by another object — Collins English Dictionary

but I have no idea what "freestanding water" is supposed to be. If you search for the phrase, you mainly will find...

look! it's standing *and* it is free!

... "freestanding water coolers", which I'm rather certain isn't the intent.

Basically, the sense of the word "standing" in the word "freestanding" is not the same as the sense in "standing water" — in fact, water can't be "standing" in that sense at all unless it is frozen, or otherwise already magically shaped.

So, is this odd wording meant to indicate:

  • water not in a container,
  • a self-contained body of water,
  • water which is not flowing,
  • or something else entirely?

If it's "must be self-contained", how self contained? Like, must it fit entirely within the 100-foot cube area limit of the spell? That seems contradicted by the Flood option, which says "If you choose an area in a large body of water...".

And "it must be standing water" can't be it, because Redirect Flow directly contradicts that idea, with "You cause flowing water in the area to move...".

Given that, I'm inclined to guess "not in a container" (or, you know, "not part of the blood and stuff comprising a creature"). But if that's the case, what about a large bowl or basin? Does "freestanding" mean "not in a closed container"? That seems like the only logical thing left in context, but doesn't exactly emerge from just reading the words.

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    \$\begingroup\$ ♦ Reminder: We do not support answers in comments because comments do not support features like proper voting and the wiki-style editing that allow us to vet, correct, and improve the content. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 2 '17 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ For whatever it's worth (30 internet nerd points?), this is inspired by comments on this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Nov 2 '17 at 23:38
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It means not combined with anything else, i.e. able to move and not chemically bonded. Water trapped within the interlayer in clay is not freestanding, and neither is most of the water in the body (but some of it is, like if you just drank some water, for example, and in your urine but not your blood). 'Extra' water in mud or clay or whatever would be freestanding, though.

This usage comes from the second definition of 'freestanding', according to Webster's Dictionary: 'independent'. It's a little unusual, but you do see this used to mean 'not chemically bonded with' in common parlance on occasion:

"Scientists Use Oxygen "Scissors" to Create Freestanding Single-Atom Silicon Layer" isn't talking about sheets that can support their own weight but rather sheets that aren't chemically bonded to their substrate (previously creating such sheets was possible, but they couldn't be subsequently separated from their substrate for practical use).

"The stability of free-standing germanane in oxygen: First-principles investigation" refers, again, not to a block of germanane that's self-supporting, but rather to germanane which isn't chemically bonded to oxygen atoms or O2 molecules, nor dissolved into a gaseous solution.

In practice, this means you can't ever actually move all the water in most situations-- if you part the Red Sea the seafloor is still gonna be wet, it just won't have any 'extra' water on/in it at all. When you redirect a flow, you technically can only redirect the freestanding water part of the flow, but that doesn't mean that the solutes won't be pulled along too, just like someone swimming in it would be.

Note that applying chemistry to D&D stuff in this way is generally not a good idea, though water-based spells have a bit of a history of doing that (as parodied in 4th edition Hackmaster's Freeze spell, which suggests the caster's player should consult a Physics textbook to calculate the total thermal energy of water affected, and the resultant temperature and state).

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    \$\begingroup\$ D&D is written using the normal meaning of words unless they are game defined terms. Applying a technical scientific meaning of a word is not the "normal" meaning of the word. The normal meaning of freestanding is that it isn't supported by another structure (ie it's not relying on another object to support it's shape). \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Nov 15 '19 at 12:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @illustro I think there is a disconnect between the concept of separate words and a phrase. Freestanding on its own means "able to stand on its own." This is a property inherent to solids, no liquid can ever be freestanding because it will always spread out to fill its container. Clearly, therefore, the phrase "freestanding water" has to mean something else, as natural structures (the shore, a dam, riverbanks) are still other structures; a tower that used a mountain or tree as a load-bearing structure would not be freestanding. Clearly, the scientific definition is the only usable one. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Nov 15 '19 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did a Google Books search and found the phase in a context which is still scientific but seems a little less so that pure chemistry — books about wildlife ecology and farming use the term as opposed to water contained in food. I think that's a close to a natural language definition as we're going to get, which is why I've accepted this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Nov 15 '19 at 17:04
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Definition of freestanding: not relying on or linked to anything else; independent.

Therefore freestanding water comes from natural water sources. Examples:

  1. Rivers
  2. Puddles
  3. Ponds
  4. Lakes
  5. Swamp/Marsh
  6. Ocean
  7. Waterfall
  8. Fog

At the end of the day, this is a common sense answer. It's a 4th level spell meant to control a volume of water. Talk to your DM about what they consider to be the limitations of these spells and work out an agreement that suits you both.

Water created by magical sources would be case by case. For instance, Create Water spell has duration instantaneous, so the water created just exists now, it's not magical. Would this apply to decanter of endless water? Maybe. Could you control it as it's firing? No, because it's contingent on the decanter to be firing. After the fact? Again, up to your DM.

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D&D is written using the normal meaning of words unless they are game defined terms. As a result we should prefer common word definitions over technical scientific meanings of a word.

Freestanding, means the water isn't supported by any external structures.

Merriam-Webster1

standing alone or on its own foundation free of support or attachment

Lexico2:

Not supported by another structure.

Collins3:

A freestanding piece of furniture or other object is not attached to anything, or stands on its own away from other things

Cambridge4:

standing alone without needing to be attached to anything

So in the case of "freestanding water", it means "water not supported by any structure".

But what does this mean?

A key thing to grasp is that the land and things like mountains are not "structures". Structures are normally and commonly understood to be man-made and not capable of being formed naturally.

It means the water in your water cooler example is out, as it is being supported by the water cooler, it's not standing on it's own.

To give you an idea of the types of bodies of water that would be described as freestanding:

  • Puddle
  • Lake
  • Ocean
  • Water in a well
  • Geysers
  • Swamp
  • Fog (although this might have a hard time being described as "standing" water aka "not moving" water)
  • Ponds
  • Clouds

Bodies of water that would not be described as freestanding:

  • Water in a water tower
  • Water in a barrel
  • Water in a bottle
  • Rain

To quickly address your google search, which returned "freestanding water coolers". The object of that sentence is "Water Cooler" as an object, not the water within the Water Cooler. The picture you show, the Water Cooler itself is clearly freestanding, as is isn't supported by any other structure (were you to place it on the ground).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This all generally makes sense but some things still trip me up. Something that's "freestanding" is not just not supported by something else: it's actively standing on its own. A log lying on the ground is not "standing" and so can't be "freestanding". A body of water can be standing — but that's a different sense of "standing" entirely and not the one "freestanding" clearly means. Likewise, I am very dubious about including clouds in the list — would you say that a hot air balloon in flight is "freestanding"? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Nov 15 '19 at 15:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm standing water is a specific phrase meaning unmoving or unchanging water. separating words out like that in English to try reconstruct their meaning doesn't really work due to how language evolves over time. What a sub-word like standing in the context of freestanding meant when it was constructed as a word is different to how the meaning of standing has changed over time. Also yes, I would classify a hot-air baloon as free-standing as it isn't relying on any external structures to itself to support itself (unless you count the air as a structure). \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Nov 15 '19 at 15:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ A long on the ground can be freestanding. I can cut a log in such a way so that it can support itself in any of four orientations you place it without relying on anything but the ground and it's own weight to support it \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Nov 15 '19 at 15:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ D&D uses the natural language meaning of words. Natural language isn't precise, it isn't legalistic, it isn't scientific. D&D 5e is designed with this nebulosity in mind. We are expected to interpret the meaning in a sensible way, to ensure the game is fun (it is a game after all). Most people playing the game aren't scientists, so you can't expect the scientific version of the word to be used, because most people won't know, or understand what the scientific meaning of a word is (I'm pretty sure the designers don't as they aren't scientists) \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Nov 15 '19 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, I get all that. I just am not sure that "freestanding water" has a normal natural-language meaning. It's a non-common phrase so there isn't any commonly understood meaning, making it even more nebulous than is often the case. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Nov 15 '19 at 16:53

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