Verb Abuse

CNN Headline: Explosion targets Spanish hotel.

I’m not a physicist, so take what I am about to say with a grain of sodium chloride, but

Explosions don’t target things; people do

Headline writers use this cheap personification when they want to hide appropriate subject of the sentence, the actor who made the typically bad thing happen. To say “Basque Terrorists Target Hotel” makes the Spanish separatists sound just a little mean, doesn’t it? Better the explosion itself –an act of nature that just happens under just the right circumstances, such a combination of Semtex and detonator– take the rap than to single out the people who actually performed the deed.

Headline writers also use this when they want to emphasize an inanimate object’s role in the event, especially when the prevailing windsom indicates that the object itself is bad. That’s why you get SUVs running down grandmothers and guns killing innocent bystanders.

Personification is a nice device in fiction or creative non-fiction. Journalists should probably avoid it, except when their journalism is fiction or creative non-fiction. Come to think of it, perhaps journalists are already adhering to this maxim.

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