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Whose motive

It’s not just other publications I scold. The Sun has reporters and editors who regularly overlook a small but irritating lapse, one of which I saw in print on my day off.

To write that police have no motive for a crime is not exactly the same as to write police have no knowledge of a motive for a crime.

We usually assume that the police are not motivated to rob, burgle, carjack, stab, etc. civilians. When they do, that’s usually in the first sentence of the article, not the last.

When they don’t have a clue who did it or why, we write that they know of no motive for the act, thereby establishing a degree of precision in prose and avoiding the scowl of a cranky old editor.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)


OED2's definition 6 of have is: "To possess as an intellectual acquirement, to be versed in, to know; to understand, grasp with the mind", which I think meets the case.

Here are the supporting quotations:

1600 Shakespeare Merchant of Venice i. ii. 66 Hee vnderstands not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latine, French, nor Italian.

1603 Shakespeare Hamlet ii. i. 68 You ha me, ha you not?

a1616 Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona (1623) iv. i. 32 Haue you the Tongues?

a1616 Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) i. iii. 118, I thinke I haue the backe-tricke.

a1649 W. Drummond in Notes Convers. B. Jonson (1842) 9 He hath by heart some verses of Spenser's Calender.

1750 Ld. Chesterfield Let. 5 June (1932) (modernized text) IV. 1551 Our young countrymen have generally too little French.

1839 W. H. Ainsworth Jack Sheppard I. i. iv. 71 ‘Ah! I have it,’ he added after a moment's deliberation.

This is probably unmodified OED1, which is why there are no 20th-century quotations yet.

I thought I was the only one who was irked by that expression.

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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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