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.”