John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Is nonlife threatened?

From The Baltimore Sun: The woman was being treated at the station for nonlife-threatening injuries and was expected to be taken to a local hospital, according to an MTA spokeswoman [emphasis added].

The woman, this sentence tells me, has injuries that are threatening nonlife. That, of course, is nonsense, and a reader would have to be thicker than a plank to understand the phrase as other than non-life-threatening injuries, with non modifying life-threatening. Still, it’s an awkward-looking construction, and I think I know where it comes from.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that the prefix non is generally attached without a hyphen. So a copy editor who applies “rules” without thinking will make sure that the reader gets nonlife-threatening.

But the AP says also to use a hyphen to avoid “awkward constructions.”

That would require judgment.


  1. So maybe that means the decision to use nonlife-threatening was made by a nonlife-form, such as a computer...

  2. Wendalyn Nichols, who has been having trouble posting a comment, send this message:

    I'd like to comment on "nonlife" by saying the following:

    Whoever edited that piece might do well to get a copy of Bill Walsh's book "Lapsing Into a Comma." In his discussion of the "non-" prefix, he says, "You might say I had a nonlife before I met my future wife, but otherwise I'm at a loss to find a use for such a word."

  3. Do copy editors get punished somehow when they commit blunders like that one?