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Oh, the suffering

An irate Sun colleague complains about a point of our house style, saying, "It was shown to me Monday night that our style is now to say that people suffer, not sustain or receive, injuries — and that would be a reversal of the Sun style on which my news-writing sensibilities were honed. We are cheapening the meaning of ‘suffering’ to include, in the case in point appearing in Tuesday's editions, teenagers who received graze wounds in a shooting. Style should make sense. Misuse of the word ‘suffering’ does not."

Well, it may or may not be a reversal of our house style, and to call it a "misuse" appears to stretch a point.

The paper’s in-house stylebook from 1958 says, "Injuries are received, not suffered or sustained." The admonition is repeated in the 1979 edition. The Associated Press stylebook I was issued in 1986 when I came to work on The Sun’s copy desk, says that injuries "are suffered or sustained, not received.

The current edition of AP says, that injuries "are suffered, not sustained or received.

You put your left foot in; you take your left foot out. … The point of this hokey-pokey with injuries becomes even more obscure as it turns out that this looks to be merely a journalistic preoccupation. To suffer injury is consistent with entries in the standard dictionaries — the Oxford English Dictionary listing examples from the 16th century. Moreover, I do not find anything on this point in Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the old Fowler or the new Fowler, John Bremner’s Words on Words, or Theodore Bernstein’s manuals of usage.

Much as it wounds me to tell a colleague that a core precept of his formative years in journalism was hollow, I have no idea where these various distinctions on verbs with injury came from, or why anyone should ever have paid attention to them.

Elsewhere on one of the copy editing discussion boards, the old issue of whether collide can be used with a moving object and a stationary object has risen yet again, with the usual insistence that two objects must be in motion to collide. But Merriam-Webster’s says that there is no foundation for the distinction, and R.W. Burchfield, former editor of the OED, says emphatically in the New Fowler’s that a car "can collide with a tree, a bollard, or any other fixed object, as well as with another moving vehicle."

Enforcement of shibboleths and observance of meaningless distinctions is not the best use of our time.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:17 PM | | Comments (2)


I meant to include the link to the back-and-forth on "collision." Here it is, from the American Copy Editors society's discussion board.

Why must an injury "be received" or "sustained" or "suffered" when "Madam X was injured in the accident" is much simpler, nonjudgemental and direct? If you wish to specify the exact nature of the injury (suffered a broken arm) keep the statement straightforward. "Her arm was broken." This avoids the perception that a value judgement, victimization or any other condition is being imposed on the person.
Personally, while I agree that "suffer" is not always appropriate, I don't see that an injury "received" suggest anything other than a passive role, which is what is going on most people get injured. The steering wheel hits them.
Of course if the person throws himself on the knife, that's a whole different story.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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