Halve Not

Unreflective Reuters undresses itself in misuse of transitive verb

A Debit to Reuters for posting a 19th century headline—and getting it wrong.

The topic is undergarments. Specifically, Hanesbrands, about which Reuters had this announcement on October 29: “Hanesbrands Q3 profit more than halves.”

In plain English, they are telling us that Hanesbrands’ third quarter profit fell 59 percent. In Reuters-speak, which appears regularly, the profit apparently “halved,” and then some.

We have two problems here.

One, the verb “halve.” It is the kind of word that you read every now and then, especially in cookbooks, but never really use, because nowadays people (except headline writers) prefer the more natural “cut in half.”

And yet Reuters not only uses the clunky term—to save space, perhaps—but modifies it with “more than.”

The even bigger problem is that Reuters’ construction is just plain wrong. According to Merriam Webster, “halve” is what grammar geeks call a transitive verb, meaning that it must have an object. As in, “He halved the apple.” Subject. Verb. Object.

Not that you’re likely to hear such a phrase anytime soon. But, nonetheless, it is correct. So Q3 profit can’t “halve.” Rather, something (subject) has to halve (verb) the profit (object).

Get it, Reuters?

Just to make it entirely clear, we offer you one of the more modern examples of “halve” from the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which traces word usage over time. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1789: “The fervid Sun had more than halved the day.”

Romantic poet right. Reuters wrong.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.