Sunday, June 21, 2009

Prepositions gone wild

From The Greenbelt comes a case of prepositional weirdness from the Washington Post:

Social Worker Fired in Slaying
2 Others Suspended Over the Pr. William Child Abuse Case
A Prince William County social services employee has been fired and two others disciplined for mishandling the case of a 13-year-old girl whose adoptive mother is accused of abusing and killing her, county officials said yesterday.

Is the main hed another example of in/after interchangeability? Could be, but I think it's more likely a different news routine being drawn out of position. Time for a short detour, then.

The proscription on "arrested for" is widely shared around the industry. Here's the AP:

"To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use a phrase such as arrested for killing. Instead, use arrested on a charge of killing."

It's usually read more generally than that, to include cases in which a noun follows "for," as in "arrested for murder" in addition to "arrested for murdering." Owing to the strictures of hed space (and partly because, for dumber or smarter, we end up reporting a lot of arrests before charges are filed), a common substitute for "for" is "in," as a sort of shorthand for "in connection with":

Smith held in death of Jones = Smith has been arrested in connection with the death of Jones

My guess on the Post hed is that someone's inferring a rule that says "To avoid prejudging a case, always say '(verb) in' rather than '(verb) for.'" (That's how we get the occasional weird crime hed with a verb following "in": Smith arrested in killing works, but Smith arrested in embezzling doesn't, because that's not the noun we get from "embezzle.") The trouble is that the hed is leaping one barrier too many; the death is too deeply embedded for "fired in slaying" to read accurately.

I'd probably be happy with "fired after death," or with a main hed that said "Social worker fired, 2 disciplined" and left the cause for the deck. But it has a lot of the hallmarks of a social practice issue, rather than a grammar issue, and dissenting views (or better hed improvements) are welcome.


Blogger John Cowan said...

This is quite precisely the "vague in" that I've been talking about.

4:01 PM, June 21, 2009  

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