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Anybody remember who's president?

I had to send a note around to the copy editors this week reminding them not to let references to former Pope John Paul II get past them. Once you’re pope, you stay pope. We might as well write about former Queen Victoria.

That point did put me in mind of an allied journalistic reflex, references public figures no longer in office, say, former President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon has been in his grave (so far as we know) for 14 years. He left office 34 years ago. Is there anyone, even in this benighted country, who would mistake a mention of Nixon as a reference to the incumbent?

That tic, in fact, is matched by the other standard reference to former office-holders: He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1937 by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even a dim reader can confidently be expected to figure out from the mention of the year that the sentence is identifying the man who was president at that time. Of course, we could say former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, indicating, perhaps, that Roosevelt was out of office at the time of the appointment. Or would that have to be then-former President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Wielding a mighty cursor, I’m inclined now to strike any number of formers and thens. We’ll see whether anyone complains.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:44 PM | | Comments (9)


How about striking such sportswriterisms as "former" Heisman Trophy winner XX XX or former Olympic medalist AA AA"?

When did 'reference' become a verb, replacing 'refer to'? Talk radio types and the politicians who (usually) hate them use this all the time. The rest of the world seems to have been spared. Is there an an answer to my lament?

Boberl, in fact I did that very thing tonight, changing Ravens quarterback Troy Smith from "former Heisman Trophy winner" to "2006 Heisman Trophy winner." Nobody has taken that honor away from him.

A problem I constantly encounter in my editing/translation work in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is what to do about Yugoslavia. I have convinced a few of the people I work for that "ex-Yugoslavia" is not elegant English and that, when necessary, "the former Yugoslavia" is to be preferred, but I still get sentences that begin, "In the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s..." Obviously, there was nothing "former" about Yugoslavia in the eighties. It may be psychological: they just want to put the whole experience behind them.

I agree with boberl; one never says "former Academy Award winner" or "former Pulitzer Prize winner." Especially when it's an honor that many people hold at once (unlike the presidency).

When an award is given once a year to a single person, such as the Heisman, it makes the most sense to me to provide the year of the award (which takes up even less room than "former"): "the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner". Though if you are writing about a group of winners, you don't need either the year or "former": "The team includes three Heisman Trophy winners…"

In a similar vein, I've been noticing more and more references to what someone did "before his death," as in "Charlton Heston was a conservative activist before his death." No kidding?

This morning, there was a story about former NC State Univ. coach Jim Valvano, "who led the Wolfpack to a national championship in 1983 before dying 10 years later of cancer." The item was about a cancer research fundraiser in Mr. Valvano's name, so the cancer ref isn't as odd as a) the note that his victory came before his death (gee!) and b) the implication (or my inference, anyway) of "how dare he up and die after winning a championship!"

It may be a saving grace that all these references have been in broadcast news or advertising, not in print. Or not.

Do people ever write "a former Rhodes scholar"?

I would assume, as a reader, that the person you're writing about was ONCE a Rhodes scholar, unless they are of the right age. And even then, I'd expect you to say "this year" or something.

Even though, of course, once your scholarship is done, you are not anymore a Rhodes scholar. Still, as a reader, I would not be confused.

Talley Sue:
I always prefer simply "Rhodes scholar" for a person who has completed that course of study at one point in their lives. It's not like the knowledge or prestige is taken away from them the following year.

Slightly related: Various oldtimers on copy desks past have admonished me to never ever say "former Marine," as a Marine is and always will be a Marine, semper fi, yadda yadda. Of course, other branches of the service, by extension, I suppose are thought to be less loyal.

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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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