dead people can’t do stuff

The headline on this Reuters article, ‘Johnny Cash releasing another posthumous album,’ reminded me of a frequent source of copy editor humor. It’s wonderful that we have words like “posthumous” and “late” to help delicately describe things related to those no longer with us. But there are rules for their usage, which help avoid accidentally funny images like this story’s lead: “More than six years after his death, Johnny Cash will return to record stores next month with a new album featuring one of the last songs the country legend ever wrote.”

Just remember: Dead people can’t take action.* Something can be done to them — i.e. they can receive an award or have a book published posthumously. But they can’t do it themselves. If you’re tempted to use “posthumously” in a sentence, try replacing it with “after he/she died” and see if it makes sense. (I sympathize with the headline writer here, as passive voice isn’t ideal. But there’s no possible explanation for that lead.)

The flip side is that I often see writers incorrectly using the adjective “late” in a sentence describing something that happened while the deceased was still alive, e.g. “It was thrilling to hear the late Christopher Reeve speak at my commencement.” Yes, that would be a sight. But in fact, you saw him speak when he was still alive, so “late” is inappropriate. Often enough, I think it’s probably clear from the context that the person is now dead. But if not, you’ll need to find another way to indicate it. Unless you’re writing Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.


3 responses to “dead people can’t do stuff

  1. Maybe this is a stylistic concern, but when I read that lead, I got the feeling that the writer was more making a statement that it’s unusual for an artist who has been dead for that long to have a new album released. Obviously, Johnny Cash isn’t going to be the store, but there simply isn’t room to write, “More than six years after the musicians death, Johnny Cash’s music will return to record stores next month…”

    I understand your point and don’t mean to be contentious, but personally, I don’t have a problem with that lead.

    • Contentiousness is welcome! I’m persnickety, I admit. I just think it pulls the reader out of the story. But you’re right that it could be read figuratively.

  2. While it’s obvious what the writer meant to say about Johnny Cash, the sentence still needs to be reworded.

    “Unreleased Johnny Cash tracks” or “A new Johnny Cash release” could be worked into the copy somehow. The phrase “one of the last songs the country legend ever wrote” implies he’s gone, for the benefit of those readers who may be unfamiliar with Cash’s legacy.

    Even if the artist is still alive, like Neil Diamond for example, I find it awkward to say “Neil Diamond returns to record stores next month” unless the story mentions his personal appearances at record stores.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s