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?