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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Note to copy editors everywhere

Anal-retentive takes a hyphen.

Words to watch out for: Accused

This headline appears at Baltimoresun.com 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.