Tuesday, October 25, 2022

We've been had

My eminent colleague Karen Conlin posted this morning an awkward sentence published by a Chicago television station: "A man killed in a shooting outside a Chicago Greyhound bus terminal in the West Loop on Harrison Street has had his identity released." It presents two issues, one grammatical and one journalistic. 

For the first, the verb "had" commonly suggests agency: "She had the leak in the roof fixed." "They had their wills and powers of attorney drawn up." But journalists frequently use "had" to indicate merely that something has happened, as in the specimen sentence, which suggests that the dead man released his identity posthumously. The examples of "had" meaning "happened" aren't always this ludicrous, but they always strike a false note. 

The reason journalists use this construction is to make sure they have something up front in the sentence to draw the reader's attention. It would have been easy to write "Police released yesterday the identify of a man killed. ..." But "Police released ..." is a yawn. "Man killed in shooting outside Greyhound bus station" is the most interesting thing the writer can offer, particularly since this looks like a second-day story with the identification the only new element. 

And the identity isn't in the opening sentence, likely because the victim was not anyone notable.

This specimen sentence has not had itself edited. 


  1. There's also a fair distance between the grammatical subject and the sentence's real verb, what with all that intervening detail.

    I like the analysis of why "A man killed yesterday ..." is leading here, but I'm not clear on how best to work in the release of his identity. Not to ask you to do professional work anymore, but would you venture a rewrite?

  2. Broadcasters need to write they way they'd tell the story to a friend.
    The lede is entirely too clunky.
    "Police have released the name of a man

  3. The lede is entirely too clunky. Broadcasters need to write with the sentence of structure they'd use in conversation.
    "Police have released the name of a man who was shot to death outside the West Loop Greyhound station."
    Simple, clear, active. Follow
    @sbroadcaststyle for more tips.

  4. Well, I don’t think this “had” means “happened”. It’s a perfectly grammatical use of the word. I had my face slapped. I had my car stolen. I had a book published. I had my name released. The problem with the quoted sentence is simply that the bloke was dead, and we find it odd in those circumstances to have him have anything.

    - Picky

  5. It's not only journalists that use "had" to mean "happened". I commonly hear things like "Alan had his bike stolen". This doesn't suggest some kind of insurance fraud, it just means his bike was stolen. I don't find that unusual.

  6. I agree that this is poor writing. The inversion of the sentence to put the salient point last doesn't really create suspense or interest, it's only clumsy. In addition, the "has had" throws the whole thing into the passive voice and isn't good journalism.

    John, for the third year in a row one of my stories will be published in a yearly anthology for charity. I have quite a few stories in reserve and I'm headed for tougher competition: long established mystery and science fiction magazines.

  7. I agree with Picky: there's no grammatical problem here. But "The identity of the man" etc. etc. "was released yesterday" is a good application of the passive, since there's no reason to point out either who the man is or who released his identity (obviously the police).

    That said, the whole story should probably be squelched altogether.