Trying to teach journalists the finer points of law is nearly as hard as trying to teach them the finer points of math. So the advice often is boiled down to overly simplistic “rules”: A house is “burglarized,” but a person is “robbed.”

While that usually is correct legally, it’s not so cut-and-dried linguistically.

Though different jurisdictions have different legal definitions, for the most part a “burglary” is the act of entering a premise with the intent of committing a crime. You don’t have to break in, and you don’t have to actually steal anything to be a “burglar.”

“Robbery” usually means “the felonious taking of personal property by force or threat of force from the immediate presence of the victim,” as Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it. (And since its author, Bryan A. Garner, is also a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, he knows whereof he speaks.) But people will also say “my house was robbed,” even though they were not home at the time, and the house is not the victim.

The Associated Press Stylebook recognizes this theft usage: “In a wider sense,” it says, “to rob” “means to plunder or rifle, and may thus be used even if a person was not present: His house was robbed while he was away.”

“I was robbed” sounds right, but “my house was burgled” sounds funny to American ears. Garner’s says its usage here is usually “facetious or jocular.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary calls “burgle” use “informal.” But “burgle” is standard British English, so it’s not “incorrect.” Americans can claim “burglarize,” which traces to the early 19th century and is less-often heard in British English.

You do not, however, “rob an iPhone” from someone. You “rob her of her iPhone.” Even though the “iPhone” is the object of the robbery, it is not the object of the transitive verb “rob.”

Both “robbery” and “burglary” involve theft, which in legal terms is usually called “larceny.” Many people think of “larceny” as something more akin to a swindle than a hold-up, but, unlike “burglary” and “robbery,” which include hints of how the crime was carried out, “larceny” is purely the taking of something that does not belong to you by unlawful means, whatever they be.

“Larceny” is often small, but whether to spell its qualifier as “petty” or “petit” is often a matter of debate. Most dictionaries say they are synonymous, and the AP says it prefers “petty larceny” “based on an archive check.” Garner’s says “petty” is usually the British spelling and “petit” the American one, though AP’s archives apparently beg to differ.

The best way to decide, though, is to see what the local criminal code says. New York, for example, has a crime called “petit larceny” but other offences that it calls “petty.” Other places spell it “petit” in formal documents and “petty” in others.

It’s a small matter which way you spell it, unless you’re a lawyer—or a criminal.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Language Corner

Whine lovers

Read More »

 

More in Language Corner

Whine lovers

Read More »

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.