I suspect everyone, and no one!

18 September 2010

I loathe the way that police officials and journalists will use the word suspect as if it means perpetrator, as in

When the register was opened, the suspect partially jumped over the counter and thrust both hands into the cash drawer, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.

A suspect is one suspected — that is to say surmised — to have done something. To baldly declare that a person did something is to speak with far more than suspicion.

One can have multiple suspects even knowing that an act was committed by just one perpetrator. And one can have no suspects despite knowing that some person or persons must have acted; the use of suspect for perpetrator becomes utterly absurd when virtually nothing is known about the perpetrator. Here

An unknown suspect (or suspects) allegedly entered the garage during the previous night and removed a Cannondale bicycle valued at $500.
the police don't even know how many perpetrators there were. On whom does suspicion fall? Here
officers have no description of the suspect, except that he was wearing a black, red and white bunnyhug
they have a gender and a hooded, tri-color sweatshirt. On whom does suspicion fall?

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10 Responses to I suspect everyone, and no one!

  • Mykal Banta says:

    The press is nothing but a herd of swine grunting in a filthy trough. They can print any lie as long as the events are "alleged." Also, they print accusations as questions in headlines as in today's headline in The Palm Beach Post: "Did Crist vacation on state party's dime?" The article below headline reveals nothing but suspicion and more questions, absolutely nothing to support headline, but it doesn't matter. The headline has already condemned.

  • Part of this is sloppy journalism and the other part is a publication covering their backside. In each example, better wording would have made for better reporting. I use the word suspect in many journalistic stories I sell, but I do so carefully. First I report the crime and known aspects of the crime. I only use the word 'suspect' when the police give me a quote that includes that word (I have no choice at that point), or when a suspect is entirely apparent because it is known if a certain person deserves suspicion.

    I am certain that in haste (deadlines suck) I have broken that rule, but I am cognizant of it when I have time to think properly. If a victim or a witness, for example, provides me with a description of criminal activity and of a person performing criminal activity, then according to the victim or witness, that description is a suspect by their account.

    • Daniel says:

      If the use of suspect for perpetrator continues, at some point there's going to be a conflict as some party truthfully described wth the word suspect takes this reference as itself a more substantial accusation.

      • Of course, this could be simply another shift in acceptable definition in the English language. I don't like it any more than you do, but it happens often in many aspects. An Example:

        "Chomping at the bit"

        This is suddenly accepted in the English language as an appropriate phrase, even though the correct phrase is "champing at the bit". It is ridiculous, really, because the bit sets behind the horses last molar and the horse couldn't chomp it if it wanted to. Champing, obviously, would be the act of friction against the back of the horses mouth from wanting to run against the restraint of the bit and reigns.

        • Daniel says:

          Certainly language evolves, and accepted (and ultimately acceptable) use can arise from error. But even in cases where reasonable people accept the new uses, reasonable people often look back and regret the change, as functionality or other felicity was lost.

          And, whatever the relatively acceptability and importance of the outcomes for the use of words, some errors were or are more honest than others.

          • I agree. And, appreciate Mock Turtle's comment as well, another example of what has become acceptable.

            • Daniel says:

              Oh, I wouldn't agree that it were acceptable, though it has certainly become common. (And it's not something, by the way, that she in particular would say except when she literally meant it.)

              Another one of those common-but-unacceptable constructions where users have typically lost track of negation is I can't hardly. What makes them persistently unacceptable is that they would represent a pretty fundamental grammatico-logical break. (While one could imagine a creature that did chomp at bits, changing the function of negation in specific instances would be something far more dire.)

  • Zenicurean says:

    I'm also rather amused by the occasional references to "alleged suspects", since the use of the phrase practically always springs from this exact confusion of ideas.

    • Daniel says:

      Indeed. While I can imagine a case in which a journalist thinks it possible that officials or investigators are attempting to misrepresent their suspicions in a way that casts suspicion on someone whom they do not themselves suspect, I've never actually seen alleged suspect used that way.

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