When ‘late’ is lost

We talked “last” week about whether you have to change “in the last three months” to “in the past three months.” Short answer: No. What’s past can be last, in most cases.

The same is not necessarily true of someone who is “late.” As Garner’s Modern American Usage says, using “the late” before someone’s name or title, a sign of respect, is “elliptical for lately (i.e., recently) deceased.”

But it’s often applied to people who have been dead for quite a while. So we have a woman who received “a commendation of the late President Ronald Reagan,” a discussion of a recent book by Bob Woodward about the man who “disclosed the secret White House taping system that led to the late president’s resignation,” and a student scavenger hunt that “ended in the ‘Oval Office’ where the late President John F. Kennedy, aka Principal T.J. Potts in a Kennedy mask, shook students’ hands,” at a school where “the late Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy” had attended the dedication in 1965.

When does someone no longer merit “the late”? There’s no easy answer. Garner’s suggests that “anything more than five years or so is going to strike most readers as odd.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says other have suggested anywhere from 10 years to half a century, though “our evidence shows that the late can be applied to people whose lives were recent enough to exist at any point within living memory of the writer or speaker.” The best advice from M-W is to “use your own judgment to decide whether it is appropriate in a particular instance.”

The issue, though, is broader than merely wanting to tell readers that someone is dead: It’s a journalistic tic to tell readers that someone is dead while describing something the person did when alive.

Saying “dead guy did X” is a self-contradictory statement, one that can create a momentary disconnect in a reader’s mind. The last thing any writer wants is a disconnected reader. So the author of a new biography of Ronald Reagan “suggests the late president was distant, preoccupied, unknowable,” a review said. Well, maybe it’s hard to be engaged when you’re dead.

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Take a moment to decide whether it’s even important to mention that the person is dead: Especially when speaking of someone who is eminent, it’s often not necessary at all, unless they are very recently dead. If a reader needs a reminder, do it not with the adjective “late,” but somewhere else: “Shortly before her death, she published her last book.” You could do it this way: “Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy attended the school’s dedication in 1965. Kennedy died in 2009.” Perhaps putting it elsewhere can make you realize how unnecessary it is in the context to mention that someone is dead, as it is in that case.

Think, too, how context can help you. Describing someone as “a widower” means you do not have to describe his wife as “late.”

Obituaries and death notices, of course, are filled with “the late.” Many of those are necessary to differentiate among people alive and dead who had a relationship with the subject of the obit. Again, let context guide you: A death notice of a 95-year-old does not need to mention that her parents were “the late Stanley and Martha Black.” It would be very surprising if they were survivors.

“The late” can be handy, though, when it’s not describing something the person did. So it’s fine to say “the successor to the late President Hugo Chávez” or that someone had “great admiration for the late President Harry Truman.”

Just avoid using the adjective “late” before the name of someone doing something. As The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, the person performing the action “was almost certainly alive at the time.”

Sometimes, never is better than late.

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