John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Words to watch out for: Accused

This headline appears at this morning:

Charges dropped against / accused city brothel operator

The intention is to identify a person who has been accused of operating a brothel. But the construction can also be understood to mean that someone who in fact operates a brothel has been accused of the crime. The headline probably suggests to the reader that even though the charges were dropped, the person is guilty. But even if that is the case, it is not the job of the newspaper to supplant the functions of the courts.

This is why careful copy editors (if any remain in our depleted newsrooms) resist the constructions accused killer and accused murderer, because they effectively say that the person is a killer.

Here’s a distinction: When a member of the clergy is charged with abuse, the construction accused priest does not mean that he is accused of having been ordained.

You may object that this is one of those fine distinctions that obsessive-compulsive editors insist on. But given the importance of the presumption of innocence in the legal system, it seems defensible to be fastidious about this.

To disagree, comment below.


  1. I take your point, but how do you get around it in a headline without resorting to something clunky and headline-lengthening like " accused of operating city brothel"?

  2. When I read that headline, I thought it was about some other crime that the brother operator had been accused of. Had I thought about it longer, it might have occurred to me that operating a brothel probably isn't legal in Baltimore, and so that's probably what the accusation was about, but I was delayed in reaching that conclusion because of the phrase "city brothel operator," which made me think the brothel was a government-run service, like a city dump or city park. The "city" isn't present on the headline once you follow the link to the story, so it no longer suggests the accused person was a civil servant.

  3. And then there are times when it's taken to extremes, such as when newspaper articles continue to refer to someone as "the accused" long after the guilty verdict, the sentencing, and the commencement of the prison sentence.

  4. "Charges dropped in brothel case" would be shorter and would, I hope, be understood to mean charges against someone for allegedly running a brothel. Even if a reader wasn't already familiar with the story, the word "brothel" might be enough to get them to read the story to see what it's about. If the story ran in a regional roundup, you might need to say "Baltimore brothel case" to distinguish it from any brothels that might be operating in the suburbs or elsewhere in the circulation area.

  5. Mr. Sweeney does as I would have done.

  6. When I was a police dispatcher, I hated the police term "suspicious subject." That guy skulking around a neighborhood, looking into car windows, might not have suspected anything. But my complaints fell like leaves in a gale.

  7. How about "Whoremonger off the hook." Or "Pimp walks." Or "Sugar Daddy case dissolves." Or "D.A. mounts no case vs panderer." You know, something with a little flair to keep 'em reading...

  8. Easy solution that probably doesn't waste any more ink: Substitute "alleged" for "accused." Dust hands. Smile proudly. Treat yourself to a coffee.