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The unkindest cut

One of our reporters used the phrase cut off the music in an article, prompting a reader to write, “PLEASE! You must know better.”

Understandably perplexed, he replied, asking what the reader objected to.

The reader answered: “I thought you would be an English or journalism major. When used as a verb, I believe cut means to tear or slice as with a scissors or a knife. I think turn off the music would be proper. Did you ask a copy editor?”

Well, he did, after that. And I was able to assure him that though cut does mean to sever with a blade, it, like so many other common verbs, has a series of idiomatic senses. One of them is cut off, which means to discontinue abruptly. (It’s in all the dictionaries.)

I would have imagined as well that the reader would be familiar with the film director’s “Cut!” to indicate that action should stop immediately, or the hand-horizontally-across-the-throat gesture indicating the same thing. This is not an exotic usage.

Over the years I have received many have-any-of-your-writers-been-to-college? letters from readers, and the interesting point is that they are wrong about the grammar or usage about half the time. The writers labor under a misapprehension that a word is allowed only one sense, or they have fastened on some hoary superstition that is all they remember from English class in elementary school, or they elevate some idiosyncratic preference to the level of moral law.

Mind you, when we’re wrong, we fess up. But when we’re right—you may remember my telling you about a tussle, one of many, that veteran Sun copy editor John Scholz had with the editors on the business desk, after which he returned to the copy desk and announced, “They have agreed to forgive me for being right.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:44 PM | | Comments (4)


That's hilarious!
There's an XKCD comic about this. Love it.

Sara had to admit that Eric was the most deliciously louche lounge lizard in the casino.

I wonder if the reader was British, perhaps? The use of "cut off" in this context does seem slightly odd to my English eyes. Only slightly - I wouldn't have noticed it if my attention hadn't been drawn to it.

We'd probably use "turn off" or "switch off"; the use of "cut off" seems to imply some degree of permanence. The electricity company might cut off your power if you don't pay the bill, or going through a tunnel might cut off your phone signal.

Rural folks in these southern parts use "cut off," as in, "Cut off them lights, John." My husband uses it, too, and it's always sounded odd to me. But I wouldn't consider it wrong.

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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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