Sunday, February 12, 2006

CSJ in Boston Globe

Thanks to Jan Freeman for the mention in her Globe column on the uses and misuses of "suspected."

In it, she mention that Kenneth G. Wilson of The Columbia Guide to Standard American English suggests that concerns about using terms such as "suspected robber" are the realm only of "finical protectors of the language."

Some thoughts on that from an e-mail I sent her after a friend forwarded the column (for the record, she's on the side of the "finical"):

The problem with Wilson's position is that while acknowledging idiom is certainly something to be done by any thinking writer, that same writer when operating in the realm of public affairs must pay attention to the sharpeness of words and constructions and the affect they can have on public opinion. Bandying about terms like suspected xxxxxx dulls that edge. We have seen it in action post September 11 where "suspected terrorist" is used with seeming abandon and almost instantly brands the person in the public realm, notwithstanding Wilson's warning about "finical protectors."

And Wilson seems to backtrack a bit if you read his entry on "accused": "The accused rapist, accused burglar, and accused arsonist, may be deemed actionable when they appear in print before conviction; responsible journalism prefers alleged. Note too that Dr. Brown, the alleged murderer, may be taken as more damaging than Dr. Brown, who is alleged to have committed the murder, because the alleged murderer is an appositive of Dr. Brown and may seem therefore to assert more strongly." Call someone a "suspected child molester" and see whether that does not have the same effect.

It's all about simply showing respect for all those we write about. Just as I would rather, were I charged with a crime, have police "think" I did it, rather than the more deeply held "believe" that journalists too often use, so would I appreciate the respect of not being branded in the public mind by loose idiom.


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