Column: How shall we slay thee?


“Why does the media keep using the word ‘slain?’ Why are they sensationalizing this story? It was just an accident!”

Admittedly these questions weren’t really posed to me, but I’ve decided to co-opt them for official Grammar Guy purposes. Great artists steal, and all that.

The story in question involves the recent death of a firing range instructor from an accidental shooting involving a 9-year-old girl at the range. The particular headline read something like, “Family of slain gun instructor reaches out to girl.”

Now, tragedy of the story aside, many commentators took issue with the word “slain,” suggesting that it overdramatized what was essentially an accident. There are two sides to the argument, and I find myself sympathetic to both.

Does “slay” not work? You would be hard pressed, I think, to argue that a word meaning “to kill by violence” is not appropriate in the case of a shooting death – no matter how accidental. Sudden, penetrating trauma is quintessentially violent. I would further offer that “killed” makes an awkward adjective.

Everything being fine on paper, notwithstanding, the issue is obviously one of connotation and denotation. The denotation of “slain” – killed by violent means – does not jibe with the connotation readers ascribe to the word, namely, “murdered.”

This is the sort of tricky language issue that you can argue until you’re red in the face about and, while you might be technically right, you may still fail in the ultimate goal of language: to communicate accurately your thoughts to another person. That is why, especially with loaded words, you must always be cognizant of the emotional baggage a word or phrase can carry above and beyond its dictionary entry. There is using a word correctly, and then there is using a word appropriately. Pick your battles as you see fit.

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