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"Allegedly" is a crutch

Late last night, at that time when the editor’s eyes ache from hours of staring at low-grade prose and the traitorous thought flickers across the mind that the game might not be worth the candle, @trudishaffer tweeted, “Sigh. I think I'm fighting a losing battle against ‘allegedly.’”

I immediately urged her to stand firm, and a number of stalwarts have chimed in. If the young ones give up the struggle, we’re all doomed.*

Even the obsessive-compulsive’s Holy Book, the Associated Press Stylebook, advises against over-reliance on alleged and allegedly. You can tell from its strictures what kind of nonsense writers are prone to engage in: “Do not use alleged to describe an event that is known to have occurred. ...”

There appears to be a prevalent misunderstanding that sprinkling copy with allegedly, as one grates Parmesan over pasta, protects against libel. But a more reliable protection against libel is simply to be clear and specific about who is making the allegation: “according to charging documents,” “a police spokesman said,” “the indictment charges that,” “a witness told police,” “in testimony at trial,” or the like.

You should only resort to alleged when it is not established as fact that the action or crime took place. There may or may not have been a bribe or a sexual assault. But even there you will want to be careful; if you write about an alleged rape, you risk appearing skeptical rather than neutral.

Throw away the crutch and walk on your own feet.


*I myself continue to reach for the cuffs over suspects in crime stories. You know, “The suspects fled the scene after the shooting.” No, you only have suspects when the authorities identify someone they are looking for. Until then, you might have gunmen, or shooters, or even, God help up, perpetrators, but they aren’t yet suspects. Should I say alleged suspects?



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:33 PM | | Comments (6)


The "alleged suspects"--please, don't.

The one that gets me is the us of "literally" when people mean figuratively. As in, "It's so hot today, I was literally drinking tank loads of Gatorade™" No, really, you weren't.

I was so nervous, I was figuratively sweating bullets.

Sounds weird, doesn't it? Let's just be the figure of speech.

Well, you could just say, "I was so nervous I was sweating bullets."

If you think that the unadorned cliche can be freshened by adding an adverb, give it a try. But I don't think that literally makes it more impressive.

Because of repeated misuse, “suspect” is in the odd position of now having two, somewhat contradictory, meanings: (a) the traditional sense of a particular (identified) person who is suspected of having done something, and (b) the new sense of an unknown person who has done something. The worst case is where both meanings are used in the same article. The reporter will say the suspect did this and the suspect did that, and then ends with “But the police have no suspects.”

Yesterday's rather disturbing news report that now devious terrorist types bound and determined on blowing up in-flight commercial airliners are contemplating surgically secreting implanted plastic explosive devices within their bodies should make all future passengers of major airline sweat bullets, whilst these fanatic suicide bombers will undoubtedly be literally sweating explosive devices. Ugh!

(And we're not talking some newfangled detonated explosive suppositories, here.)

And we continue to mildly grouse about now being obliged to pay for in-flight pillows, snacks, meals, head-phones, and other former freebee onboard amenities. I say, don't sweat the little stuff, folks. The big stuff, I'm not so sure.


I allege that lazy reporters use alleged the way reporters of the lackadaisical persuasion often begin stories with "The Township Council last night..."; "I won't take this anymore!" That was the way Peter Rabbit expressed himself last night after being forced to put on a tie for the funeral."; "It was the best of times and the worst of times," and "The car collided with a tree."

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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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