The Wire vs. Oxford English Dictionary

June 4, 2009

Pedantry about the English language is dangerous territory, because when you engage in it, you are almost certain to be wrong. The writers on The Wire decided it was worth the risk, and, not surprisingly, they turned out to be wrong. Observe:

Shorter OED, 6th Edition: 

evacuate verb

[..]

6. verb trans. Remove (inhabitants, inmates, troops), esp. to a place of safety from a place that has become dangerous.

P.H. Gibbs I am in charge of a continent of nurses and nuns just evacuated from the Belgian front. T. Gunn During the Blitz I was evacuated to a school in the country.

The part that really irks is the follow-up, because while I’m more than willing to believe that writers really do engage in such ridiculous pedantry, I’m annoyed to see it falsely vindicated.

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2 Responses to “The Wire vs. Oxford English Dictionary”

  1. David Says:

    I think the problem here is that we didn’t see her sentence. My impression is that they were telling her not to use the verb intransitively, as it creates the potential for ambiguity (even if the reader will almost always quickly grasp the intended meaning). If she said “the people were evacuated from the building,” she was right. If she said “the people were evacuated,” they are technically correct even if she had implied the prepositional phrase earlier in the sentence. Your OED-provided definition tells us the verb is transitive in this sense.

    But yeah, that throwaway part at the end where she “sees the light” is really obnoxious, in no small part because she is the young asian woman being “set straight” by the wise old men. I can see their argument, but it’s not a right-or-wrong situation.

  2. J. Riddy Says:

    Pedantry can be quite dangerous indeed, but I can assure you that many journalists feel no qualms about getting pedantic. I remember hearing these kinds of arguments as a kid when I would go up to visit my dad at work in the news room. Some of these arguments got so involved that they’d take bets and call an English professor.

    The Wire had the first news room I’ve seen on TV that looked even remotely like a real one, and it’s attention to detail like this that really sells it. Also, I suggest to Mr. David above that there’s no reason to be annoyed at the demographic distance between characters here. This show did not take a flippant or casual stance on racial issues, nor did it adopt a bright view of Mighty Whitey; in context, there is very little race- or gender-focused content in that scene.


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